Charities seeking to address topics that might be considered divisive may take some comfort from the news that the National Trust acted within its charitable purposes when it published an interim report last year which examined links between its properties and histories of colonialism and slavery - provided the charity trustees are able to demonstrate that they have considered:
- how addressing such topics fits within their charitable objects, and
- the risks to the charity of addressing such topics,
and documented their decision making process appropriately.
In a press release published yesterday, the Charity Commission confirmed that the National Trust did not breach charity law and so there were no grounds for any regulatory action.
After examining the charity’s governing documents, recent annual reports and accounts, and, of course, the interim report itself, and holding a meeting with the trustees and senior management of the charity, the Commission concluded that the National Trust had provided a “well-reasoned” response to the question of how publication of the report furthered the charity’s charitable purposes.
The trustees had fulfilled their legal duties and responsibilities in their decision making processes in relation to the publication of the report, and the Commission noted in particular that the trustees recognised there could be a negative reaction to the report, and even consulted a panel of 2,000 members on whether it should research challenging histories – as a result of which it was clear that there was considerable support for such research provided that findings were appropriately contextualised.
The Commission opened a regulatory compliance case in September 2020, after receiving three complaints in relation to the report, according to the response to an FOI request made by Third Sector. In the light of those complaints, as well as criticism of the charity on social media, it decided that the “concerns required examination because they had the potential to damage significantly the charity’s reputation and undermine trust and confidence in charities more widely”.
The report became the subject of many column inches in the national press, after the fact that the Commission had been in contact with National Trust about its interim report was mentioned by the then Commission chair Baroness Stowell in a podcast for The Telegraph in October.