BHT engages in politics and with politicians. We are probably one of the most politically engaged charities in Brighton and Hove, less so in Eastbourne and Hastings. In the past BHT has had four employees who were Labour councillors during their employment, and we currently have two Board members who are former councillors (one Conservative, one Labour). One Board member is currently a candidate in an East Sussex constituency.
A Sussex-based charity felt it appropriate that a board member should stand down when running as an independent for public office. Another person left her employment within a local charity when she decided to stand to be a councillor. She was subsequently elected.
There are obvious risks involved in an employee or Board member standing for public office. To overcome these risks, charities should to evolve their ‘conflicts of interest’ policies, to make it explicit that members of staff and Board members should declare their intention to stand in order that relationships with key politicians can be managed.
There would be a more difficult situation if someone stood on a perceived racist platform. This might become an issue running up to the general election as the parties seek to become ‘tougher’ on immigration.
We can’t stop someone standing, but we can make a judgement on what they should or shouldn’t do publicly on behalf of the charity. When I was a councillor, and for several years after I stood down, I made a point of not doing anything in the media (I bet some find that hard to believe!) and others were quoted instead of me. Some thought that that was not necessary but I had upset a lot of people when I was a councillor.
Charities should encourage its staff to participate in civic duties including becoming magistrates or standing for elected office. There is a potential for conflicts of interest. I think that anyone involved in a charity who is considering standing for election should speak to the charity’s chair and chief executive to evaluate how conflicts might be reduced and managed. (The BHT Board member did this).
When it is a member of staff, measures might need to be taken that could include reducing or ending (either temporarily or permanently) public representation on behalf of the charity in the media or in external forums, as well as direct engagement between the charity and the candidate’s opponents in order to reaffirm that the person’s candidature is independent of their role within the charity.
Candidates should not use any information or status gained from their employment with the charity, Members of staff should not make any direct reference to their employment in their election literature, and they should be aware that their conduct as a candidate might reflect positively or negatively on the charity.
Apart from that, what could possibly go wrong ….?!