Not a moment of glory for the Charity Commission

“Regulating in the Public Interest”: the Charity Commission’s latest research on public expectations is loaded in favour of its chosen narrative.

The Charity Commission has published the latest research commissioned from Populus into public expectations of charities. They’ve stopped calling it research into public trust in charities, possibly (am I being too cynical?) because the research shows that trust in charities has risen to 6.2 out of 10, beating the ordinary man or woman in the street, whose victory over charities was made much of by the Commission in the past.

Charities are trusted (within the acute limitations of such research) more than banks, private companies, social services, local councils, newspapers and, bumping along the bottom, MPs and Government Ministers. This doesn’t feature in the Commission’s headlines. They want to shape a different narrative about charities’ failure to live up to public expectations adequately. In various ways, the report is loaded in favour of that narrative.

Some key omissions and alterations

As well as analysing data from a recent sample of over 4000, the report seeks to draw together previous research findings from this series, so it’s instructive to note what’s been omitted. For example: that most of the public associate charities with about nine big household names; have very little knowledge of which other organisations are charities and which are not; and are unaware of entire large categories of charities. Why? These findings don’t fit the Commission’s narrative that public expectations of charities are the paramount consideration for charities and the regulator.

The claim that the public believes charities must aim at distinct and higher standards of behaviour than other sectors of society also hasn’t made the cut. I speculate that this is an implicit admission: the Commission’s previous research never did show this, and they should not have claimed it did – so this omission is positive.

There’s also an explicit and helpful acknowledgment this time that ‘public opinion is not monolithic’ and they show how opinions differ on some issues between four segments of society, from metropolitan Guardian readers in the top left to Sun readers in the bottom right.

Data about public expectations doesn’t match the Commission’s messaging

The main emphasis of the report is on the expectations that all segments of the public are found to hold in common. The runaway winner, with 79% support, is that a high proportion of charities’ money should go to those they are trying to help (also paraphrased in the report as charitable activity).

Way behind, at around 50%, ‘the second most important expectation across the map of the (sic) public opinion is that charities are making the impact they purport to.’ So, the public thinks that resources should be devoted to the cause and its beneficiaries and that it should make a real difference to them. All quite conventional, and nothing we don’t already know from previous evidence.

But here’s a strange thing: in the summary on the Commission’s website accompanying the report, and in the identical Introduction, these two winning expectations are omitted, in favour of three other expectations which have more to do with behaviour and the duty to uphold the reputation of charity generally – the Commission’s preferred narrative. Am I being cynical again?

The third most popular expectation, also at around 50 per cent, is that ‘the way our charity goes about fulfilling its charitable purpose is as important as whether it fulfils that purpose or not’. This is framed in contrast to how the same sample regarded businesses, which on this evidence the public expect to be determinedly and even ruthlessly focused on specific results and commercial criteria.

Caring for a sick child or cancer patient (a typical public image of a charity) is obviously different from selling hamburgers: how you do it is all mixed up with what you are trying to achieve. Crucially, however, the report does not explore whether the same expectation would apply to an NHS nurse, or a social worker, or your local community policeman, so we don’t know whether this expectation is specific to charities or to all those whom the public assumes are in a caring profession.

It seems wrong that the authors later paraphrase this third expectation, quoted above, as the public’s expectation “‘That the way they go about making that impact is consistent with the spirit of “charity”’. Where have we heard this phrase before? It’s a favourite but controversial expression of the Charity Commission leadership, but it wasn’t put in front of the research sample at all. It’s not what they voted for.

Leading questions

The fourth most common expectation is that all charities should feel a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity (sic) more generally. Again, this finding is elevated in the Commission’s messaging – but there are two problems with it.

First, it was put to the sample in a loaded, falsely binary way. Respondents were invited to choose between the following:

  • Your only responsibility is to uphold the reputation of your own organisation [sounds selfish and inward-looking, doesn’t it?]


  • If you enjoy the benefits of that status, you have a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity (sic) more generally [implies: surely you do?]


Worded like that, can there be any surprise at the outcome (20:63 in favour of the second)?

Second, there’s no exploration of the relative importance of this collective responsibility. What if the principal duties of the charity are to do your utmost for your beneficiaries, to which you should devote the major part of your energies and concentration, but you should also recognise an accountability to the wider public? One wonders what the result would have been if the sample had been invited to rank a few of the different duties of Trustees, including the collective responsibility among the rest? Perhaps it doesn’t serve the Commission’s preferred narrative to put that aspect of trusteeship in a relative perspective?

Asking a sample of people, a large majority of whom know virtually nothing about the Charity Commission or who never even heard of it, what the Commission’s role should be, has been a recurrent feature of these reports, which means it’s impossible to put too much weight on the results.

In this case, the report is vitiated by another loaded, leading question, with respondents asked to choose between these two propositions:

  • “The charity regulator should confine its role to making sure charities stick to the letter of the laws that govern charitable activity” [sounds narrow and pedantic]


  • “The charity regulator should try to make sure charities fulfil their wider responsibilities to society as well as sticking to the letter of the law” [sounds responsible and balanced, away with pedantry!].

It’s no surprise that the public vote for the latter even though none of the critics of the Commission’s current narrative actually are arguing the former point. It’s a false binary, designed to support a broad regulatory remit with a big focus on behaviour rather than legality.

Conclusion: not a moment of glory for the Commission or their research partner

Sadly yet again, all is not well when it comes to the Charity Commission’s relationship with data and evidence, and how the leadership uses data to buttress its wider strategy and public narrative. Previous research findings that might weaken the desired narrative have been omitted. The Introduction and summary cherry-pick the report accordingly. The relative weight of findings about trustees’ responsibilities is not properly assessed. Some questions put to respondents are leading and poorly framed. This is not a moment of glory for the Commission or their research partner, Populus.

Gentle Charities, Meek and Mild

Why is it so difficult to say anything sensible about “the charity sector” or “charities”?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, described charities’ “gentleness” as their hallmark contribution to the national effort against COVID-19. This reminded me of the Sunday School caricature of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”: there is some truth in it, but it is an unsatisfactory overall description of the figure who overturned the tables in the temple, sent the rich empty away and gave religious hypocrites the lash of his tongue. Similarly, it’s an unsatisfactory description of charities. But let’s not be too self-righteous about Rishi Sunak: he meant his comment as a compliment and he is very far from being the only person to express a limited, partial view of charities as if he were describing the whole. We all do it, some more often than others.

The problem is that the 168,000 charities registered by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, plus all the exempt charities and those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are extraordinarily varied in size, type, and subject matter. Most generalisations fail to encompass this diversity.

One is indeed that charities should bring people together, bring out the best in everyone in an uncontentious manner, and spread kindness and good feeling towards our fellow human beings. According to a popular version of this view, contention and divisive advocacy should not be what true charities do. Politics, even with a small “p”, should be a completely separate category. Many charities do fit this stereotype, but many others do not, pursuing their charitable objectives – fully in accordance with Charity Commission guidance – by entering the realm of public debate and collective decision-making, awareness-raising and advocacy, as well as through practical service. Many charities are rightly none-too-gentle as they give voice to the oppressed and challenge injustices like modern slavery, patriarchy, racism, environmental destruction, or the other Evil Giants of our day.

This non-political, gentleness stereotype overlaps with the top-down, one-way stereotype of charitable activity, that it is essentially what better off people should do to, and for, the less well off (humans and other animals), driven by feelings of compassion, pity or guilt. Great good can come of this, but the problems are encapsulated in the well known response: “I don’t want your charity!” The recipients of this kind of charity may feel disempowered, even humiliated, if what should be theirs by right is available only through the happenstance of charity, and they are cast in the role of passive dependent rather than enjoying the dignity of rights and of contributing to the common life. That is why Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and others fought against the narrow definition of charity in the second half of the twentieth century. They wanted charitable work to be about empowerment, social justice and solidarity rather than solely about kindness and pity for the disadvantaged. Many others want a clearer recognition that the benefits of charitable work are not all one way: the giver and volunteer also derive benefit and satisfaction, the beneficiaries have much to teach and contribute. So the top -down view is incomplete and flawed, too.

Another common simplification is to talk about the whole charity sector as if it were in social service (broadly, social care and health) rather than pursuing other charitable objectives such as the welfare of animals, conservation, environmental protection, education, advancing religion, the arts, sport and so on. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations changed its name from the National Council for Social Service to signal recognition of this much wider range of activities, but old habits of talking about the voluntary sector, and within that the charity sector, die hard. The central assumed paradigm of charitable activity, in much discourse within as well as beyond the sector, is that it is about social service among disadvantaged people. Yet that is another incomplete snapshot of our diverse sector.

Even the Charity Commission leadership, who should know more than anyone about the diversity of the sector, has taken to associating registered charities with the “spirit of charity” characterised as altruism, selflessness and compassion. This has two massive problems: firstly, that is not a satisfactory description of all sorts of charitable endeavour from sport to education to environmental protection; and secondly, that it encompasses a multitude of civil society and public sector organisations that are not in the charitable sector at all. Can anyone these days say that altruism, selflessness and compassion are distinctive hallmarks of charities rather than frontline NHS workers? And what about all those wonderful voluntary organisations that are not charities?

It has to be said that the Charity Commission are not the only ones to slide over the distinction between registered charities and other voluntary organisations: even sector think tanks, pundits and the sector journals can sometimes refer to civil society and charities as if they are interchangeable.

Yet another common simplification is to talk of charities as if they were all secular. For reasons that require another blog, if not a book, in their own right, in much of the discourse and thinking about charities today the massive contingent of organisations for the advancement of religion, which attract one pound for every five pounds donated to charities, are airbrushed out of the picture, as if they are really a quite separate subject (except in so far as they also do social service of some kind).

Thus, even organisations and individuals with a relatively high level of knowledge about the charity sector, nonetheless find it difficult to avoid one or other of these partial, inadequate descriptions. We can all find ourselves  “doing a Sunak” when we try to generalise about our diverse sector. That applies all the more to a large majority of the public, who, we learn from the Charity Commission’s research, associate the word “charities” with no more than about nine big name, national, secular charities. Ask a sample of 2000 whether they and their families and friends have received a service of any kind from a charity, and a majority says no. Yet show the same sample a short list of real life charities, and a very large majority says yes.  In other words,  the public does not know what is a charity and what is not, and hence has no idea of the diverse nature of the sector.

So is there anything sensible one can say about the charity sector as a whole, apart from the facts that it is extremely diverse and very widely misunderstood? Yes!

  • Charities must be pursuing objects that Parliament has decided are charitable, and they must be registered/officially recognised as a charity. They are therefore not the same as the much bigger category of civil society.
  • They must be for the public benefit, as defined in case law and in Charity Commission guidance
  • They must be independent
  • They must be voluntary, existing because citizens have indentified a cause and want to do something about it themselves.
  • They are therefore run (almost always) by volunteer trustees and typically rely at least in part on voluntary donations
  • In return for the status and privileges of charities, they must comply with charity law and regulatory requirements.

When we talk about the charity sector, let us use those as, in combination, the defining characteristics of all charities (not more nebulous, partial and unsatisfactory descriptors such as gentleness, compassion and altruism). Within that framework, let us honour the rich diversity of charities, secular and religious, big and small, staffed and unstaffed, contentious and uncontentious, gentle and rough, in all the categories of activity that Parliament has decided are charitable. Let us therefore try hard never to describe one part as if it were the whole.

Are Charitable Services Essential?

Are charitable services essential or just desirable? Shouldn’t essential services be made statutory and universal by Parliament? 

It’s an old chestnut. But the assumption that charitable services are nice to have, rather than essential, still shapes attitudes across party political lines and in the media. It is surely one of the reasons why the Treasury’s response to the impassioned pleas of charity representatives for a rescue package to save charitable services has been a disappointment to many of us. For charities’ efforts to show how essential their services are have hit the buffers of an entrenched assumption about the role of charities since the foundation of the welfare state.

Entrenched Assumptions about charitable services

This way of thinking about charities since the foundation of the welfare state – we can call it the conventional model – is that the work of charities generally is a boon to society, hence justifying the privileges of charitable status – but not essential in the same sense as universal state services. The defining characteristic of charities is that they are independent, not part of Government nor dependent on it, being born of inherently variable volunteer effort and charitable donations. Reflecting that character, the services they provide, (unless they are delivering state services as contractors), exist only in some places, often the more fortunate ones, as New Philanthropy Capital have recently demonstrated. This conventional model assumes that once Parliament deems a service to be essential, it will legislate for it as a comprehensive, state-sponsored service. Indeed, historically, one of the achievements of the charitable sector has been to pilot and demonstrate the efficacy of particular services, which Parliament has then decided should be for everyone, no longer dependent on the vagaries of charitable funding and volunteers.

And of course it is not a tenable proposition that every charity, even every charity with staff, is providing an essential service. For a start, many charities are trying to change the world rather than provide basic services – whether to advance human rights, to protect the environment, to eliminate poverty or pursue other charitable objects through influencing awareness and collective decision-making.  Nor can the services provided by a great number of charities be seen an essential in the same way as the NHS or state schools or the Police or the Armed Services. To take just one example, charities for the advancement of religion (a big chunk of our sector) may be seen as core to the identity, motivation and lives of their adherents – but not necessarily to many others who are not religious. Some people are animal lovers, or keen Ramblers, others aren’t. A large number of charities are like that: many people can do without them, even if they happen to be available where they live. That shapes much Government, political and public reaction when charities ask for emergency help.

But assumptions that charitable services are inessential and nice to have are no longer realistic

There are, however, two serious problems with this conventional model of thinking. One is that fiscal austerity has reinforced a trend that many services which perhaps most people do regard as essential, and should arguably be provided universally, are partly provided by charities instead, as hospital care and schooling used to be. Examples have featured strongly in discussion of the Treasury’s recent rescue package for charities. One is hospices: much end of life, palliative care is provided by charitable hospices, so that the NHS funds only a third or so of the cost and the rest is provided by charitable fundraising. Another is provision for victims of domestic abuse, now understood to be a very widespread phenomenon in every location but heavily dependent on voluntary provision in key dimensions. Another is advice services for citizens struggling to find their way around the system in a bewildering world of change. And there are food banks: eloquent witnesses that so-called universal and essential state social security is failing to enable citizens to put food on their tables.

In another dimension, many charities find themselves subsidising from charitable funds the services commissioned from them by the State – so without charitable support the services deemed essential by Parliament would either disappear or become even less effective than they are now. In all these ways, charities have increasingly been drawn into shoring up what are supposed to be essential state services. And new services that might deserve to be regarded as essential have increasingly not been recognised and “promoted” by Parliament to the status of universal provision, as should happen according to the conventional model.

And definitions of essential services are contested

A second problem is that the definition of “essential” or “vital” services is contested and difficult. That is why Parliament’s view has changed over time as society’s attitudes and understanding change. There is in reality a spectrum of desirability, not a clear boundary between “essential” and “nice to have”. So the conventional model is too rigid. Is the preventive and public health work, and accident prevention, carried out by many charities – and undoubtedly saving the Exchequer substantial sums in the long run – “essential”? Is the work done with refugees and asylum-seekers “essential”? What about community transport, on which so many vulnerable people depend for (for example) hospital visits? What about all the respite and support work with carers? Or with marginalised groups with intractable problems such as drug abuse, alcoholism, rough sleeping, children excluded from school? What of all the work with children and young people vulnerable to crime and abuse or with serious disabilities? Just because many aspects of these charitable services are not statutory, are we to say they are not essential to our society? What about the Samaritans, lending an ear to people who are contemplating suicide – just nice to have?

So official assumptions about charitable services no longer reflect reality

And herein lies a core problem with which charities are struggling as they plead for more Government support. The conventional model still exerts powerful influence in Westminster, Whitehall and the media, with its crude assumption that charitable services are nice to have but not essential. It is the more powerful because, as we have already noted in the case of many charitable services in our endlessly diverse sector, that is true.  It is also powerful because many politicians and others believe for various reasons that charitable endeavour should be nice to have rather than meeting essential requirements for which the state should provide. Yet the reality in many cases is different, because charities fund as well as deliver many services which are already, or arguably should be, state-funded services. In all their diversity, charitable services are spread right along the spectrum of essential/nice to have, with increasing numbers, thanks to austerity, clustered towards the indispensable end.

Big questions for the future

The most urgent requirement is for Ministers and Parliamentarians, and the media, to recognise that the conventional assumptions they would like to make about charitable services are often no longer valid. Please get real: charities are shoring up and providing essential services, and many others that are immensely important to the most vulnerable members of society. That’s why they must be supported by Government in an emergency.

And as we think about shaping the settlement and social contract of the nation post COVID-19 – and mindful of the shaming inequalities that have been on view –  we must address which services should be regarded as essential, not just nice to have, and how they are to be planned and funded as universal and reliable for all who need them. For such services, limping along in some places, but not others, with variable charitable support, is not a good enough response to the suffering and sacrifices that the people are now going though.





Urgent: Ten things grant-giving Trustees and other funders should do NOW

An urgent open letter to philanthropists, trustees of grant-making foundations, and other funders [Also published on the website of Directory of Social Change, of which I am a Trustee].

Some of the charities you fund are on the verge of going bust. If you haven’t heard from them yet, or it’s still just a trickle of enquiries, it’s quite possible this is because they’re in crisis mode and that letter or phone call to you is somewhere on a to-do list of 1000 other urgent priorities. It’s also possible that they’re terrified to call you in case you refuse to consider their requests or even pull the plug on the funding and so hasten their demise.

Why? The coronavirus pandemic and associated social lockdown means the charity sector is facing a sudden shortfall of an estimated £4.3 billion of income in the next three months. Fundraising events have been cancelled and trading has stopped overnight.

Despite your generous donations and grants, most charities have minimal, if any, reserves; many who have apparently generous reserves on paper will rapidly run out of cash in weeks. Their reserves are commonly in buildings or stock which cannot be liquidised quickly to pay staff costs when other revenue streams dry up. Those that do have sufficient reserves to get through the current crisis could collapse later if there’s a second wave of the pandemic or longer-lasting economic disruption.

They’re not going to rush about with a megaphone announcing to their funders that they’re going under – for fear of losing what they have from you, or creating panic among staff, donors and other stakeholders. Some may, Micawber-like, hope something will turn up.

But this isn’t about charities – it’s about the people they serve. No charity = no support. You have to think about whether the people and causes you’re passionate about are going to be served now and in the future by your grantees. Will those charities that you spent so much time and effort selecting, monitoring and even capacity-building even be around in three months’ time to serve them? It’s that serious.

But here’s the thing: YOU CAN HELP! By being a good grant-giving trustee – show you get it. Break some rules and chuck some conventions away. Take a few well-calculated risks. There are bigger considerations here than grant monitoring and reporting, KPIs and outcomes metrics.

Right across society, the normal rules are being suspended in order to deal with an emergency. What the Government is now doing would be unbelievable in normal circumstances. The norms of social behaviour have been turned upside down. Everybody is improvising and changing. You can make sure that as Trustees you’re also embracing the need for flexibility and suspending normal rules as necessary in an emergency, just as everybody else is.

Charities themselves are improvising and reconfiguring their ways of working and priorities as energetically as any other sector, if not more so. Here are some examples of how you can help. Many of your colleagues are doing this already:

1. Shift programmes to support core costs. You may be funding or considering funding a project. You may normally prefer that. But when charities are about to go under, the priority is to ensure survival. No charity = no project. Please suspend your normal preferences, because the times are not normal.

2. Be flexible about monitoring and reporting. Charity staff are focused desperately on urgent change and survival. Suspend the normal demanding written reports for now. A quick check in by telephone may be more appropriate. Don’t expect regular monitoring and evaluation or end-of-project reports as if there were no emergency.

3. Adjust your appetite for risk. Remember, in fulfilling your duties to support charitable causes, the normal rules of accountability are important BUT the survival of good charities is MORE important. Our priorities as Trustees must change in this emergency. It is right to accept higher risks when survival is at stake.

4. Don’t wait for hard pressed charity staff to come to you. Take the initiative and check they’re doing all right. Offer flexibility and support to ensure survival. Offer other help if you can’t offer further financial support.

5. Speed up the process of applying for emergency funds. Loosen your purse strings if you possibly can. The value of your endowments will surely recover one day, but a bust charity will not resurrect itself so easily.

6. Respond quickly to cash flow crises. Many charities are struggling to get overdrafts from banks yet income has dropped sharply or stopped completely. Think about how you can help their cash flow to tide them over. Keeping those key staff and volunteers working during a social crisis may be the very best investment you ever make!

7. Remove restrictions on your current grants, even temporarily. This can give the charity’s trustees more freedom to manoeuvre, if they can put your restricted grant towards cash flow or other operational emergencies even for a limited time. This could not only save the charity but paradoxically secure your investment – because if the charity goes under, you’ll lose it anyway.

8. Think how you might relax or adjust your normal strategic priorities and grant criteria. They can come back when the emergency is over; by then we might be living in a substantially different world, and your previous strategy could be obsolete.

9. Consider indirect or secondary effects of the crisis. Think how you might help more charities to help those afflicted directly or indirectly by the virus or by the near-term effects of the lockdown – even if that wouldn’t normally be your subject area.

10. Don’t wait for the next quarterly Board meeting to discuss your response. In a couple of weeks, let alone a couple of months, it will be too late for some charities to save themselves. This is urgent. As I am sure many of you already doing, use zoom or equivalent videoconferencing, convene emergency board meetings, see how you can save vital charitable work now. Every day matters.

Foundations are so important at the best of times but now so more than ever. Thank you for the incredibly important work you do to support the charity sector. You can be the superstars of helping the charity sector survive and thrive – thereby helping wider society to get through this with the minimum possible damage.

Protect your investment by protecting your charities!


COVID-19, Grandparenting and Ageism

The official response to COVID-19 lumps all people over 70 together, regardless of health status, as a vulnerable and at risk group. In normal times, that would be regarded as ageist, ie as stereotyping all people over an arbitrary age as vulnerable and needing protection and care.

Fortunately, the Government has rowed back from the unfortunate media interviews given by Matt Hancock in which he announced a plan to require all people over 70 to stay at home. But even the less sweeping injunctions to take particular care, differentiating us from the under 70s, and the warnings as schools close not to ask grandparents to look after children because all over 70s are vulnerable, are, by normal standards, ageist: a demeaning way of reducing many healthy contributors to society to a homogenous  vulnerable group.

If has proved uncomfortably easy for politicians, public health officials and commentators to regress into that way of thinking about older people. To be fair, the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer have said during press conferences that they know there are plenty of very healthy people over 70, but that has done little to counter the main flow of treating them nevertheless as a single vulnerable group. Ethnic minority people, many women, and disabled people will be familiar with how dehumanising it feels to be lumped together and subjected to sweeping assumptions that undermine dignity. Now a lot of us healthy people in our early 70s are experiencing it.

“Diddums”, I hear you say. “It’s a public health emergency. The currency of crisis and a war footing needs to be oversimplified. Get over it.” Yes. But if we are riding roughshod, for pragmatic reasons, over the advances in thinking about older people in the last 40 years, we need to be conscious of doing so and know that it is one damaging cost of the crisis. Is it necessary?

Take the statistics of risk. The Imperial College study that influenced the Government’s intensification of suppression measures a few days’ ago uses categories of 60-69, 70-79 and 80+. Yes, the percentage of the 70-79 age group that are estimated to require hospitalisation if infected with the virus is 24%, of whom 43%  (5 per cent of the total) may require critical care. Multiply that up by millions and it’s a massive burden on the NHS. But what those figures don’t tell us is: how far is that due to age, or how far is it due to underlying health conditions that do not affect a huge chunk of the age range? We know that many such underlying health conditions accumulate as we get older, so of course you find much higher numbers of those with such conditions as you move up the age range. But if you eliminate the effect of underlying health problems, what is the higher risk of hospitalisation from being a healthy 70, or 75? We don’t know from the Imperial study, and I have asked various bodies but have as yet no answer. Yet we do need to know if we are to make sensible judgements –  as individuals and as Government – about how far the contribution to society of healthy people in their 70s must be curtailed or eliminated for the next 12 to 18 months, until a vaccine comes on stream – regardless of health status.

What is that contribution? We are massive contributors to volunteering. At the same time as Ministers are telling us we are vulnerable, at risk and must pull in our horns, we receive urgent pleas to volunteer time and effort to fetch prescriptions, buy food for the isolated, walk their dogs and so on. We are massive contributors to childcare, especially of our grandchildren. This may be particularly important for the children of those struggling with alcoholism, drugs, mental health problems, family breakdown, and imprisonment. When I was a member of the Parole Board it was striking how many prisoners whose rehabilitation had been progressing well went off the rails when they heard of the death of their Nan, the one person who had ever been a reliable source of love and support in their lives. In many less extreme cases, grandparents’ love, free of the stress of the parents, is nevertheless a precious emotional and practical mainstay in the development of childen, as well as being a profound joy to the grandparents. So those pronouncing a general edict that you shouldn’t let children visit the grandparents are detached from the reality of many families where grandparents’ care is core to their functioning and quality. And for many others where the contribution is not strictly essential, the cost and damage of sudden separation has properly to be measured against the risk to grandparents who are in many cases, even if they are over 70 at all, are in excellent health, with time, attention and stimulation to offer that are impossible for many parents.

Remember: suppression of the virus is not a matter of weeks. According to the Imperial College study, we may have to continue suppressive measures until a vaccine is ready in 12 to 18 months, otherwise the suppressed virus will surge up again.

I know there is another side to this. Many of us of all ages are slow to realise just how serious the situation is and how we personally must play our part in reducing infection and the burden on the NHS. Many elderly people may underestimate how vulnerable they are, and be extremely reluctant to give up an active life participating in and contributing to society. Nobody wants to be isolated and treated as vulnerable and dependent when they desperately want to preserve their independence. So grown up children are rightly having to read the riot act to older parents who don’t want to abide strictly by the Government’s guidance.

Nevertheless, we need to understand better what the risk of age, rather than health status, is. We need to remember that people over 70 are hugely varied, and millions are in great health and have a lot to contribute to getting us through this. Ageism is not only offensive to rather a lot of us – and a dehumanising way of thinking – but also might be counterproductive. So let’s be vigilant lest the rampant ageism of the response to COVID-19 goes beyond what is actually necessary.

Perils of the Lead Trustee

[NB This blog was written for the Directory of Social Change, of which I am a Trustee, and is published on their website]

The lead trustee role in a particular subject area can be a blessing, but it is much more prone to problems than you might think. We need to know what those problems are.

  1. I have been reading the fresh guidance note by ICSA (The Chartered Governance Institute – on Lead Charity Trustees in England and Wales (November 2019), aimed principally at charities with staff. It is admirably brief (14 pages even including a specimen role description) and puts its finger on a number of key risks and remedies, so if you are or might become a lead trustee, or are thinking of appointing one, please do read it. It could save a lot of grief.
  2. A lead trustee (or link trustee) is asked to take a continuing special interest on behalf of the Board in a particular subject and liaise with the relevant staff, in a way that the whole Board or formal Board sub-committees cannot always do. So we have the Hon Treasurer, the safeguarding trustee, the HR trustee, the GDPR trustee and so on. (I currently have the honour to be Policy Trustee for the Directory of Social Change). So what could possibly go wrong?
  3. Collective responsibility can suffer. Appointing a lead trustee does not absolve the other members of the Board from exercising their responsibilities for collective decision-making. They shouldn’t – but some do – heave a sigh of relief and leave safeguarding to the safeguarding lead or finance to the Hon Treasurer. Lead trustes are there to help the Board to do its job better, not to do its job for it. Similarly if something goes wrong you can’t just blame the lead trustee: all trustees carry the can. Equally, the lead Trustee must be accountable to the Board and not abuse the position by taking decisions that properly belong to the Board as a whole.
  4. Lead trustees can be asked to do different things, up to and including having some carefully delegated decision taking. Exactly what they are expected to do, and the limits of delegated authority, cannot wisely be left vague. It should be pinned down in writing, says the ICSA guidance, and regularly reviewed by the Board.
  5. The lead trustee must be directly accountable to the Board and not start to be accountable to the senior staff instead, it continues, and senior staff may need to be reassured that the appointment of a lead trustee does not signal lack of trust in their competence or an intention to undermine them. The lead trustee must remember that he or she does not have a management role.
  6. These perils are real. I have indeed known a fundraising trustee come under pressure from staff to start managing a chunk of the fundraising operation. She certainly had the skills to do so, but it would have led to impossible conflicts of identity with her role as Trustee. I have known a lead trustee assume that the staff would accept her instructions and views because she was a trustee (forgetting that this goes beyond the lead trustee mandate). And it can be really awkward if the lead trustee has strong views with which staff disagree.
  7. I have also known a lead trustee bat so hard for “his” special interest in Board discussions that both Board and senior staff team felt he had become incapable of taking a rounded view as a member of the collective Board. I have experienced the uneasiness on a board where lead trustees had close but un-minuted involvement with staff, leading to advice and proposals to the Board stemming partly from a Board member but without the transparency or authority of a board sub-committee. I have known uneasiness on the part of a very senior staff executive because a senior staff member supposed to report to him was in practice starting to answer directly to the lead Trustee, undermining the management hierarchy. I have known of staff who assume they have kept the whole Board properly informed because they have had a chat with the lead Trustee.
  8. In fact, because of these potential problems of confused identity and accountability, I have also known one charity decide that it was not going to ask individual Trustees to act as continuing lead trustees or special advisers to staff teams because the scope for confusion was too great and causing tensions.
  9. I think that is too fatalistic. Formal sub-committees cannot cover every subject. The lead trustee role can work. But only if there is open accountability and enough clarity about what the role is and is not. So do have a look at that guidance note! Thank you, ICSA.

The Charity Commission’s Mandate

What is the mandate of The Charity Commission? Whether you are a Board or staff member of the Commission, a user of its services, a commentator or critic, it’s helpful to remind ourselves as a new year gets under way: what have the representatives of the people in Parliament actually told it to do?

Quite a lot of discussion about this in 2019  proceeded as if its role and functions were not spelled out in some detail in the 2011 Charities Act.

For example, one hears critics complain that the Commission should stick to its core role of enforcing the law. Good practice should be left to the sector, say some. The Commission itself seems to feel it must argue constantly that it is not enough for charities to obey the law. It devoted some of its research to showing that focus groups agree…..

Hang on a minute. All this is set out perfectly clearly in the Charities Act. Why not cut the unnecessary waffle and have a look at it?

One of its five statutory objectives is promoting public trust and confidence in charities. I have always agreed with the Commission and many others that this must involve more than compliance with the law alone. Indeed, the compliance objective is identified separately in the Act, so was certainly not intended by Parliament to be synonymous with the public trust and confidence objective.

Parliament also gave the Commission the charitable resources objective which is to promote the effective use of charitable resources. That obviously goes beyond enforcing the law. No question.

It also mandated the accountability objective, which is to enhance the accountability of charities to donors, beneficiaries and the general public. That also obviously goes beyond enforcing the law. Please note, Commission Board members, that Parliament went to the trouble of distinguishing between donors, beneficiaries and the general public rather than simply assuming that “the public” is a monolith.

Parliament also mandated the public benefit objective: “to promote awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement”. This is the requirement that charities must be run for the benefit of the public, not just a small section such as the very wealthy, and not for the personal benefit of the Founder, Trustees or staff. Achieving, assessing and reporting on public benefit is also a mixture of “must” and “should”, i.e. of legal requirement and good practice, as the Commission’s guidance on the subject makes clear. You might be forgiven for forgetting that this statutory objective exists, as it seldom if ever passes the lips of the Chair or Chief Executive, but the duty does exist, and some of us think it is very important.

Parliament also specified functions including “encouraging and facilitating the better administration of charities”. That again unquestionably goes beyond enforcing the law.

As the law stands, therefore, the Commission is mandated to promote good practice in different dimensions as well as enforce the law. There is no need to keep arguing about it or spend money on focus group research to establish it.

Of course, exactly how best to achieve these objectives, and in what sort of collaboration with sector bodies, is a different and important issue. Practicable priorities also have to be established within a limited budget. What is the most sensible way of establishing what good practice is in all these dimensions? Who decides what is meant by the better administration of charities, or accountability to different stakeholders, or the effective use of charitable resources, in a way that commands the most widespread and active assent? Let’s debate all that. DSC will continue to play a strong part in that debate, as we mind about the Commission’s contribution and do not consider that its current approach is working well enough.

But let’s base the discussion, not on unanchored assumptions nor on itty-bitty research into public opinion, but on the actual mandate given by Parliament. There can be no doubt about the principle that, under current law, it is the Commission’s business and duty to promote good practice, not just legal compliance, in multiple dimensions.  Nor is there doubt that they should be held to account by Parliament (and also, less formally, by those of us steeped in the charity sector) for their performance in carrying out all of the objectives and functions in their mandate.



What does the Charity Commission’s research into public expectations actually show?

The Charity Commission’s board has appointed itself ‘representatives of the public’ – but the members are hardly representative of modern Britain. The Chair, a former Conservative Leader of the House of Lords, repeatedly leans on commissioned research carried out by Populus about public trust in charities to bolster her argument about the Commission’s role. Yet her sweeping generalisations about what “the public” (as if it were a  monolith) expects of “charities” (as if they were not endlessly diverse) have become detached from the reality of this relatively thin research base.

Insights not highlighted by the CC

Let us pause to remind ourselves of some of the clear insights from this research that the Commission seems not too keen to highlight:

  1. Most of the public have little or no idea what is a charity and what isn’t. A sample of 2000 identified no more than about nine household names when asked what they thought of when they encountered the word “charities”. Populus warned that this limitation must be borne in mind when interpreting what the public think about “charities”. This is a rickety basis for generalisations about what the public expects of charities in general.
  2. The behaviour of charities (as reported by the media) is by no means the only driver of trust or mistrust of charities. Important factors include age : young people (18 to 24) are much more likely to trust charities than those over 55;  and especially familiarity with charities: people are much more likely to trust a charity they know. Another factor now acknowledged by the Commission is the general growth of distrust towards institutions in our society. (The statement in the Introduction to Trust in Charities 2018, that “Trust is earned, or lost, through behaviour” is therefore simplistic.)
  3. Even in the last few scandal-hit years, a majority of the sample (in 2016, the year when the overall measure of trust dipped, it was 67 per cent) has maintained or in a few cases increased their trust in charities. Only a minority, who in general are less familiar with charities, say their trust has decreased.
  4. Only a minority (41 per cent) within that minority say their loss of trust has led them to donate less.
  5. By far the most important reasons people give for donating to a charity are belief in the cause, and belief that the charity is making a difference – a reminder, if we needed it, that people give to a cause and a particular charity, not to “charity” in general.

“Findings” that the Commission is trying to draw – wrongly

Now we turn to some of the conclusions that the Commission’s leadership has sought to draw and highlight from the research. In a speech to some women charity leaders on 10 December 2019, the Chair said: “We know that people have clear expectations that charity [she means the work of charities] should be distinct from, different to, other types of endeavour.” Because charities are seen as so special, “people” or “the public” expect charities to behave specially well, selflessly, and show a spirit of charity – respect, compassion and care for others – emanating from them in the way they behave and go about their work.

That is not what the research shows. Populus asked  its 6 focus groups in 2018 (of 8 or 9 people each) for reactions to two statements about the standards to which charities should be held. One was: “Charities have to live up to the same standards as the rest of us” (my italics). This commanded assent from some in all the groups, and it was the only statement shown to the two London groups. That obviously does not support Baroness Stowell’s claim of distinctiveness. The other statement, which was overall more popular with those who saw it in Taunton and Manchester was: “Charities are held to higher standards that reflect the importance of the work they do” (my italics). This does not say that the standards should be higher than for those in other fields of important work – it links the high standards to the importance of the work. Hence, individuals in the focus groups commented, those who do important work with vulnerable people, such as those who work in alcohol or drug clinics, have to show high standards in the same way that we expect high standards of doctors and the police. Thus,  the Chair’s inference that the public expects higher standards of behaviour from charities than from other sectors is unsupported by the research.

Take another example from the same address. “People want to see that what goes on in a charity is motivated by the same spirit of charity that prompts them to volunteer at a shelter on Christmas Day, or sacrifice a luxury for themselves to make a larger Christmas donation”. You will find no evidence for this assertion in the Charity Commission’s research. The ‘Trust in Charities’ research of July 2018 showed that the most popular reason its sample of 2000 donated to charity was  belief in the cause, followed by a belief that the charity made a positive difference. Trailing behind that was the belief that the charity was doing good work in the UK. So far as I can see, nobody at all said that it was because they were looking for and recognised the spirit of charity or specially good behaviour.

When asked a more specific question about what was most important to their trust and confidence in charities – not the same question as what they are most looking for generally – 37% of respondents said it was knowing whether or not a reasonable percentage of donations got through to the end cause, 36% chose whether the charity made a positive difference to the cause, while only 15% chose whether the charity had honest and ethical fundraisers and 8% whether the charity was well managed. Overwhelmingly, this suggests, it’s the cause that matters. This does not support the assertion that what they are looking for is the spirit of charity or a special ethos.

This picture does not change fundamentally when the groups are prompted separately to give a score out of 10 to indicate the importance for trust of various factors put in front of them. The winner with an average of 8.8 was transparency about where the money goes. The next most popular factor (8.5) was that the charities should be “true to their values”, which had not featured in the previous exercises. There is no evidence that they thought this was unique to charities: which institutions should not be “true to  their values”? Why would these values be different from the Nolan principles of public life (see below)? Moreover, not only transparency about the use of  money, but also efficient use of resources, being  well governed and well managed, demonstrating a positive difference and being expert, capable and skilled, all attracted the same order of support (from 8.4 to 8.0)  – nothing “distinct” and unique to charities there.

What the focus groups said about culture and behaviour

Now let us look at what else the groups said about charities’ culture and behaviour, mostly in the context of their views on what the regulator (about which most of them previously knew little or nothing) should be doing.

In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, some said that charities should treat vulnerable people with dignity and respect. One person in one focus group is quoted as saying “I want charities to improve their morals really and be held accountable, to be made an example of”. One other said ambiguously “Check the charity is run properly – it’s a moral thing.” But most of the references to morals and behaviour relate explicitly to their concerns about proper use of money for the cause. For instance: “We expect charities to work with integrity. There should be guidelines on best practice, on all sorts of things: staffing, money, so they’re not being wasteful”. Or again: “[The Charity Commission] should be checking the books, finding where money is spent.” Typical suggestions were that the Commission should assess how well charities were spending money on the cause as opposed to themselves, crack down on those who were found not to be helping people in need, check Trustees were fit and proper people to run the charity, and seek out evidence that a charity was actually having an impact.

In so far as there were mentions of organisational behaviour and culture in addition to being seen to use money well for the cause,  there is nothing here that is not in the Nolan principles of public life that apply to the entire civil service, local government, police, courts and probation services, all other public bodies and all health, education, social and care services. A reminder: the Nolan principles, articulated in 1995, are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. To hear a few focus group participants naming a few of these does not mean that they are asking for something special of charities because they think charities are different and special.

In fact, since most if not all of the big name charities they have mainly in mind deliver public services via Government contracts, they are already explicitly bound by these Nolan principles anyway.

Summary of what the research shows…

What all this does illuminate is that that a significant number of respondents were worried that very big charities might be spending too much money on themselves rather than the end cause and people in need. This tipped over in some cases into what the Chair has called “so-called myths” and what the rest of us call myths, such as “The management and the people who run the charities take all the money” (male volunteer in Taunton).  It confirms that open information and explanation about the use of money, and evidence of impact, are perceived as helpful to the trustworthiness of a charity (as is surely true of many other organisations). It confirms unsurprisingly that people take a dim view if a charity is found guilty of deliberate mismanagement, eg not to be helping people in need and serving the personal interests of staff or Trustees instead. If they do that kind of thing they should be held to account: big household name charities are not seen as above the same sort of accountability that pertains in other sectors. On these largely unexceptionable matters the research adds some colour and insight.

…and does not show

What it does not show is that these people think charities should be held to higher standards than other sectors. It does not show that they are looking for a special spirit of charity that should be the distinctive hallmark of the sector. It does not show that declining (or, as it is now, plateauing) trust and confidence as measured in this research is the main or even a major driver of public behaviour in donating time or money to charities. It does not show that the special behaviour of charities is a salient feature of public expectations , as distinct from a charitable cause worth supporting, an ability to advance it and make an impact,  careful and transparent use of the money entrusted to a cause, and principles of behaviour that have for many years been expected across the whole public sector and beyond.

This modest research base is not terra firma on which to base large generalisations about what the diverse multitudes comprising “the public” expect of the 168,000 varied bodies comprising the charity sector. Even within these limitations, the research does not support the particular generalisations that its Chair is making.  I really hope that the Commission’s leadership will stop repeating these unfounded assertions, which don’t do much for much-needed trust and confidence in the Charity Commission itself.



The Labour Party, Long Bailey and “the establishment”

Rebecca Long Bailey’s leadership launch in Tribune includes this passage: “You are as likely to see me on a picket line as you are at the despatch box, and you can trust me to fight the establishment tooth and nail”. Elsewhere she says “we need to rebuild Labour as an insurgent force and offer  a vision for a new democracy. We must go to war with the political establishment…” But what does she mean?

An important question for those of us who will be choosing a new Labour Leader is: how likely is the British electorate to opt for a war or insurgency against “the establishment”? After all, they have just put Bullingdon Club Boris and a large number of other establishment figures into power with a thumping majority, despite the Labour Party’s being the largest insurgent force in living memory.

So what is the establishment against which we should be declaring war or fighting tooth and nail (quite  violent expressions, even as metaphor)? For many of us, the British establishment includes prominently the royal family and all the Lords Lieutenants, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, the House of Lords, the senior judiciary, the leaders of our armed forces, the senior civil service and Foreign Office, the Captains of Industry, the Vice Chancellors of  our universities – just to name a few. I am sure Long Bailey does not mean we should go to war against all of these, but the phrase opens herself and her Party to damaging misunderstanding. It doesn’t necessarily sit well with progressive patriotism, which Long Bailey espoused in a recent Guardian article. Remember the damage done when Jeremy Corbyn once did not join in the national anthem – quite tame compared to waging all-out war?

I assume Long Bailey means “establishment” in a different sense, which is those people who supposedly have a stranglehold on power and wealth in our society. The problem is that this sort of analysis is vague and contestable. Are bankers and financiers a monolith, is Industry a monolith, are the media a monolith, conspiring together with those with inherited wealth and privilege to increase inequality and feather their own nests at the expense of the people? Are all elites to be condemned as neo liberal and self-seeking, and the enemy, or is there variety within them? If there is no monolithic conspiracy, who are we supposed to be warring against, and who might be spared?

Is it even possible some of the establishment might be a significant part of providing some of the solutions to our problems? Take Long Bailey’s Green New Deal, of which she is justly proud: are not many key figures within influential business and financial circles, the senior civil service and other parts of the establishment, going to be vital players in working for the new green world we need? Are not some of them already key figures, like those driving down the price of batteries and renewable technology, or civil service leaders trying to shape COP 20, or the likes of Nicholas Stern and Mark Carney: two very establishment figures, but also important green leaders? How inclusive is the progressive coalition needed to meet such huge challenges?

A different definition is also used by Long Bailey: “the political establishment”. This seems to be similar to what Trump describes as the Washington swamp. It may be confusing for electors who always thought that leaders of Her Majesty’s Opposition were very much part of the political establishment themselves. What indeed is the political establishment? In addition to Government and Opposition, it surely includes influential backbenchers such as Chairs of Select Committees that hold the executive to account. Are we to be at war with them? The Speaker? Surely not the House of Commons as a whole? Local Government Associations? I really don’t know who is in the political establishment and who isn’t. You can favour Long Bailey’s recommendation for much greater devolution of power away from Westminster (I do), or abolition of the House of Lords (not so sure), without signing up to a war against the entire (ill-defined) political establishment.

I suspect most British electors are peaceable people who are not specially attracted by warlike metaphors. If we are being asked to sign up to tooth and nail warfare against a group or groups of our fellow citizens, even very fortunate and privileged ones, please can we be told more clearly who they are?

The Charity Commission’s Christmas Sermon

Christmas is coming, and the Charity Commission’s Chair has delivered an address to a group of women charity leaders that resembles a Christmas sermon (“Charity can and should lead the way in taking people’s expectations seriously”, CC Press Release of 12 December 2019).

Baroness Stowell’s theme is that society is weakened if people feel that their legitimate expectations are ignored by those who are more fortunate. Good point, topical enough in the light of the General Election result. Charity leaders should therefore show the way in demonstrating that they listen and respond to public expectations (she does not mention actually empowering sections of the public, which is what a lot of charities try to do). She thinks she knows what public expectations of charities are, and calls on us all to show how we are changing in order to meet them.

In seasonal vein, this is her version of what “the public” expect of us: “Christmas is a time when we lift our heads above our own individual hopes, worries, ambitions and interests and think about others. That respect, care and compassion for others is a fundamental part of being human….And it’s what charity is all about. Ultimately charities are the vehicles, the bodies. Charity is the spirit that should guide them and emanate from them, whatever their individual purposes and activities….It is that spirit that the public expect to recognise when they look at charities and those leading charities.”

But this is to confuse – deliberately – registered charities with something much more nebulous – the spirit of charity –  which is not confined to registered charities at all. The Charity Commission should get its hands off the spirit of charity which St Paul famously yoked together with faith and hope, and which is these days also translated as “love”. The quality of Christian charity or love (as traditionally understood), kindness and generosity, is displayed in our family lives, our informal interactions with our friends, neighbours and local communities, in many of our public services, and in a host of organisations that are part of civil society and not registered charities. It is therefore a verbal outrage to conflate registered charities with the quality of charity, taking the Commission far beyond its area of legitimacy and authority. By contrast, in its charter, the 2011 Charities  Act: ‘”charity” means an institution which (a) is established for charitable purposes only and (b) falls to be subject to the control of the High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction etc…’ The Commission’s slogan of wanting “charity to thrive” redefines the term used in its charter and imports imprecision and resulting confusion – Stowellism – into the heart of its strategic rhetoric.

A second problem is that, as the Commission’s own research shows very clearly, most of “the public” have no idea of what is a registered charity and what is not, apart from about ten household names. So to build a sermon, and generalisations applied to the whole charity sector,  on what the public expects of charities is fundamentally questionable.

Thirdly, the formula of “respect, care and compassion for others”, undoubtedly most important values for humanity, does not particularly apply to various categories of registered charities which the Commission is supposed to be regulating: we could debate how far it applies to some brands of religion, to animal welfare, the advancement of education and research, the advancement of the arts, culture, science and sport, the protection and improvement of the environment, or the promotion of the efficiency of the armed services of the Crown. Yet these are all charitable purposes as set out by Parliament. Thus, the Chair’s observations on the spirit of charity in some respects exceed her proper area of authority and legitimacy, by venturing into that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, while in other respects excluding important categories of charities as defined in the Charities Act.

Fourthly, the public is not a monolith. Generalisations about this amorphous variety are extremely hazardous. Even the Charities Act distinguishes between accountability to donors, beneficiaries and the general public, in a way Baroness Stowell does not. It is not true that in general “when people come into contact with charities, this is what they are looking and checking for: leaders demonstrating through their actions that they share with them a common understanding of what charity means”. On the contrary, people generally support particular charitable causes, not charity in general.  I attended a Christmas celebration of the CPRE, the Countryside Charity a couple of days’ ago. It filled a large church with members of the public who support the cause. It was all about celebrating the common endeavour, rekindling a passionate commitment to the countryside, hearing what plans and prospects there were, firing a determination to redouble our efforts in the coming year. It was not about some definition of charity. That example can be multiplied countless times.

The Commission’s Foreword to its research on Trust in Charities 2018 (July 2018) said ominously “it is incumbent on us as regulator to represent the public”. That is a mistake. That is not what the Charities Act says. The Commission is a quite small Board of unelected appointees who cannot credibly represent the public. Nor does their useful but modest commissioned research bear anything like the weight that the Commission places on it in claiming to know what “the public” expects, as I hope to demonstrate again shortly.

At least the Archbishop of Canterbury can claim the authority of the Anglican combination of scripture, church tradition and reason, and the status of the Established Church, when he delivers his Christmas sermon. The Chair of the Charity Commission has no similar basis of legitimacy or authority to interpret the meaning of charity with a small “c” or represent the public. It is Parliament who represents the public, and who gave the Commission an Act of Parliament as its charter. Why not stick to it, and to the Commission’s real area of grounded expertise, more closely?