Charitable think-tanks: a man’s world?

Think tanks try to influence the climate of opinion and the direction of public policy. So anyone who cares about women’s rights, their distinctive challenges and future opportunities, will want to know that think tanks are equipped to understand these and take them thoroughly into account. Perhaps this is all the more important when they are charities, benefitting from tax breaks and other benefits granted by Parliament on behalf of the public – men and women alike.

A perusal of websites, which hardly qualifies as in depth research but is based on their own public presentation of who they think they are, suggests that too many prominent and influential charitable think tanks – including the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society – may be ill-equipped to identify and integrate women’s distinctive perspectives and requirements  in their work, and that the position at such distinguished charities as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation is better but not ideal.  A rough gender balance in the governance and operational arms of a charity doesn’t automatically bring sensitivity to women’s rights and perspectives, but makes it more likely and suggests commitment to equal opportunities.

Policy Exchange describes itself as a right of centre think tank, founded by Conservative politicians including Michael Gove and Frances Maude. Of its 15 Trustees, 6 are women – better than some, as we shall see, but a minority. Startlingly, however, of the 53 staff and Fellows pictured on the website, only 7 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men.

The IEA is dedicated to free market economics and promoting free market solutions. IEA’s Board as described on its website comprises 12 people, of whom just 2 are women. Its overlapping Advisory Council of 13 has 3 women. There is thus a lop-sided gender balance at governance and strategic level. The gender balance of staff is better but still tilted towards men. Of the staff profiled on the website, 10 out of 25 are women. So far as one can judge from the website, 3 out of 10 of the most senior staff are women, and 3 out of 8 are second tier Heads. Chair, Director General and Chief Operating Officer are men.

The Henry Jackson Society describes itself as “a think tank and policy-shaping force that fights for the principles and alliances which keep societies free.” Charity-watchers may recall that both William Shawcross and Gwythian Prins had associations with this Society before their terms as Charity Commission Board members. Of its six Trustees, only one (Gisela Stuart) is a woman. Its four most senior staff are all men. Of its total staff of 22 profiled on its website, just 6 are women.

So far, it’s predominantly a man’s world.

Now let’s look at a different breed of charitable think tank, The Resolution Foundation, established to research and propose policies to meet the needs of low to middle income people (of whom women form a huge component). The Chair, Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive are men. It is important that the gender balance among the remaining staff is even, and there are women among staff Directors and authors of Foundation publications, but only 2 out of 6 Trustees are women and only 2 out of 10 Associates. Why should it be so?

Applying the same treatment to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, (IFS), which needs no introduction, the significant good news is that half of its strategy-setting Council of 30 are women (some of them redoubtable characters, too), while nearly half (41) of the 85 staff profiled on the website are women. The not-so-good news is that not only are Chair and Chief Executive both men, but 3 out of 4 of the remaining senior staff team are men, and only 2 out of 9 Trustees (elected by the Council) are women. When so many fiscal issues are not gender neutral, this doesn’t seem ideal.

What about the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), widely identified as left of centre? It describes itself as “progressive”. Uniquely in our small sample, both Chair and Chief Executive are women! Only 4 out of 11 Trustees (including the Chair) are women. But 4 out of a Leadership Team of 6 are women, and exactly half of the staff profiled on the website are women, so this is not a man’s world like Policy Exchange,  the IEA,  and Henry Jackson Society.

There is also somewhat better gender news from The Kings Fund, a famous think tank promoting good health and health services. Of its 10 Trustees, a minority 4 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men, but the senior staff team of 6 comprises 3 men and 3 women, and of the profiled staff, a majority of 62 out of 98 are women.

Finally, although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation prefers to call itself a social change organisation, I hope it won’t mind being included as a think tank for the purposes of this blog. A majority of Trustees are women (7 out of 11). The three most senior staff Directors are women, the three Deputy Directors are men. Of the 25 key staff profiled on the website, 15 are women. So, yes we can!

It bears emphasising that this check on gender balance is crude. It doesn’t automatically correlate with commitment to equal opportunities, to understanding of patriarchy, or how gender affects so many areas of policy and experience. But it gives an indication and I maintain it matters. It is also a legitimate part of a charity’s accountability to the public to explain and defend the gender balance of its governance and staff. At least the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Kings Fund and IPPR, and to a lesser extent, the IFS and Resolution Foundation, are equipped with a significant presence of women’s lived experience and perspectives in their governance, agenda-setting and policy arms, though the latter two might have further to go.

But the IEA, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society are governed and managed, mostly, by men. So don’t be too surprised if the rights, and distinctive struggles, challenges and dilemmas of half the population don’t get much of a look-in in the policy papers, educational materials and tweets pouring out of these charities. Don’t be too surprised, in short, if their vision of our future turns out to be, in the main, a man’s world, such as they embody in key respects themselves. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that, as other think tanks show. And charities are supposed to be for the public benefit – women and men alike.

Charitable think tanks: if you are reading this, whether or not you are mentioned above, please think carefully whether the gender balance in your governance, policy work and operations is reasonably even. If not, please either explain and justify it, or fix it. And Charity Commission: how about giving them a nudge?

 

 

The Inside Track or the Outside Track? The row that never dies.

Shortly before leaving his post as Director of the NCVO in 1984, Nicholas Hinton was booed, jeered and spat at. The reason was that his conversations with politicians and civil servants had convinced him that the Government of Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly going to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) and the best strategy for those concerned for voluntary action across London was to try to shape the post-GLC landscape in its favour.

  1. He shared this view with radical representatives of the grass-roots movements nurtured by the GLC, who wanted all-out resistance. To them, this was a betrayal, fracturing the solidarity of the resistance. The rationale of the informed insider confronted the raw emotions of representatives of marginalised groups demanding recognition and rights. It was a shocking moment in the history of insider/outsider tensions when the Director of NCVO left a meeting of voluntary organisations wiping spittle from his coat.
  2. Recognise anything at all familiar in this story? Yes, it’s an old, recurring row about whether voluntary organisations seeking change should pursue the inside or outside track (or both).

Criteria for the insider/outsider choice

  1. Most of us can agree that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for achieving change. The voluntary sector is an ecosystem whose different elements make different contributions, but in the end need each other. Without public and political pressure, the insiders may be ineffectual. Without the insiders’ knowledge and contacts, the outsiders may not get good intelligence about decision-making or know how best to exploit the pressure they have created.
  2. A charity seeking policy change must therefore analyse regularly whether energies should be invested more in cultivating the insider track with people nearer the levers of power, or by contrast in public challenge, protest, media pressure and the encouragement of people power. (I am focusing in this piece on charities trying to influence central government, but the principles apply equally to other civil society organisations and to other levels of Government.)
  3. Sometimes, the same organisation encompasses both insider and outsider tactics, hoping to achieve a symbiosis between campaigning and insider lobbying activities, so in those cases the calculation is about the balance between them at any one time.
  4. The outcomes of such an analysis, and resulting strategy choices, will rightly differ from one charity to the next. It will depend on three key variables, which we shall consider in turn:
  • The theory of change adopted by that charity (and periodic analysis of whether it remains valid)
  • The external circumstances, in particular the willingness and ability of your contacts on the insider track to engage seriously and, if so, make any significant difference
  • The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity.

Theory of Change

  1. Put simply, the theory of change is your assessment of what sort of activity is most likely to bring about the change you want to see. Is the best pathway to change a rational discussion based on evidence with those close to power? If so, well-argued policy papers fertilised by political opportunism and media interest may be the most promising contribution my particular charity can make. If, however, you’re interested in change which in your charity’s opinion can only be effected by a shift in cultural and power relationships in society, well-argued papers submitted to civil servants will not do the job. And even if your hoped-for change is less transformational, the insider track will be ineffectual if the politicians and civil servants have decided that your cause is low priority. Your theory of change will need to adapt accordingly.
  2. By the same token, another charity may have adopted a settled model of protest and mobilisation, as of outsiders demanding admittance to a closed society, only to find that gaps are appearing and those in conventional institutions show a serious interest in policy change and collaboration. That can be a culture shock, even identity crisis, for voluntary organisations, as I think Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace found when Mrs Thatcher suddenly announced her epiphany on the subject of climate change. Theories of change may have to alter.

External Circumstances and Opportunities

  1. A similar major change can happen when a new Government of a different party wins an Election. Years in the wilderness can abruptly be replaced by an apparent welcome to the feast – or vice versa.
  2. A new Minister from the same governing party can also make all the difference: for environmentalists, Chris Patten instead of Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for the Environment, or for prison reformers, a Michael Howard instead of a Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary. The same civil servant would, following such a change, walk into the room with a completely different attitude and brief.
  3. Similarly, the umbrella bodies of the charity sector have known over many years the difference between a sympathetic and energetic Minister for Civil Society in a central Department and a less effective one in a more peripheral Department.
  4. The analysis and the calculations of insider/outsider tactics must therefore be open to change and debate as the balance of insider opportunity alters.

The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity

  1. Different charities properly have quite different cultures and roles. Among those seeking policy change, some wish primarily to give voice to oppressed people, reflect their anger and put them in the driving seat of change through popular mobilisation. Others are think tanks with no such ambitions but with a desire to make an informed contribution as part of the policy-making process. The Kings Fund is not equipped to mobilise and empower the oppressed. Citizens UK cannot do the job of The King’s Fund. War on Want is a very different organisation from Save the Children, and both are different from the Overseas Development Institute; they contribute to change in a different way, and yet each is part of the ecosystem of charitable intervention in overseas development.
  2. Each charity must therefore have a clear sense of what its distinctive contribution is – perhaps the most important issue to be discussed in any strategic review. It will have a sense of what its beneficiaries want and expect, what its core strengths are, what difference it can make better than any other organisation, and, in a world of scarce resources, what other aspects it is going to leave to other charities with different strengths.
  3. That is why the distinctive culture and strengths of a charity are a really important factor, along with its theory of change and its analysis of external opportunities and barriers, in deciding the right balance of insider and outsider strategies.

Getting personal

  1. Of course, in a world of strong passions for a cause, such conflicting analyses can get personal, as Nicholas Hinton discovered. So the insiders may consider the campaigning types, who are reflecting the anger of a cause losing out in the current system, to be “shouty” rather than serious interlocutors, over-emotional rather than rational, posturing for a constituency rather than trying to effect real change, and indulging in “pure” rhetoric in preference to the arduous compromises necessary in the real world. They may deplore the “naivete” of those who cannot see beyond the requirements of their particular cause to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers.
  2. Those reactions can be reinforced by patriarchy if the people cast as “shouty”, “emotive” or “naïve” are women. For the nose-tapping, adrenalin-pumping world of the effective insider track influencing power has mainly been, traditionally, a (white) man’s world – and although this is thankfully changing, the change is incomplete.
  3. On the other hand, the outsiders may suspect the insiders of being flattered and seduced by the insider track, which they perceive as exclusive and un-transparent. They may see the insiders as colluding with an unfair power structure, compromising their principles, or choosing to tinker with unjust policies rather than challenge them. They see the insiders’ relationships of trust with Government as a drag on open democratic accountability within the sector and on the robust public expression of the demands of those they are serving. They may see the insiders as being gulled by clever civil servants into thinking they are being listened to when in fact they are being largely ignored.

Conclusion

To hope that voluntary organisations will stop having rows about the insider and outsider tracks is like hoping that families will stop having rows about how late teenagers should stay out on Saturday nights. But to stop things descending to the spitting stage, let’s remember:

If possible, it’s better to analyse and respect the key variables rather than get personal:

  • What’s the theory of change and does it need adapting?
  • How favourable or otherwise are external circumstances to the insider track?
  • What are the distinctive role, culture and skills of my charity? and

It’s an eco-system. In the end, insiders and outsiders need each other. One without the other is often less effective than both working in concert.

 

What’s So Special about Charities?

  1. There is a lot of pressure on charities to be special. The Charity Commission is constantly saying it. And many of us in the sector also say it: charities should be valued because they are, and contribute something, distinct from other sectors of society. But what is so special, bearing in mind that lots of wonderful voluntary organisations are not charities?

Being special: three different dimensions

  1. It is essential to distinguish between three different issues, which are too often muddled. One question is: what makes charities distinct as a category – distinct from other voluntary organisations as well as from other sectors? A second question is what makes independent voluntary organisations (including but not limited to charities) distinct from other organisations? A third question is what makes an individual charity or other voluntary organisation distinct from all the others? Let’s take them in turn.

What makes charities, as a category, distinct?

  1. The following attributes, taken together and in combination, make charities a special category.
  • Charities must be pursuing objects that Parliament has decided are charitable, and they must be registered/officially recognised as a charity.
  • They must be for the public benefit, as defined in case law and in Charity Commission guidance
  • In return for the status and privileges of charities, they must comply with charity law and regulatory requirements
  • They must be independent
  • They must be voluntary, existing because citizens have identified 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
  1. Note that being independent, voluntary, governed by volunteers and raising money from the public – and whatever characteristics flow from them – are shared with non-charitable voluntary organisations.

What makes charities distinct from other voluntary organisations?

  1. The features that make charities distinct from other civil society organisations are that they must have a charitable purpose, be registered/officially recognised as charities, be for the public benefit, and must abide by charity law and regulations.
  2. These distinct features should be observable in charities’ mind-set and disciplines, because they are about higher standards of accountability to the wider public (not just their own donors and supporters) than those required for many non-charitable voluntary organisations. Each charity benefits from a special bargain between charities and the wider society: in return for giving their time, energy and money for love of a charitable cause that benefits the public (not a private or narrowly sectional interest), and submitting to regulation in the public interest, charities are given a special status and financial privileges. Therefore, they are partly accountable – through the Charity Commission and more generally – to a wider public, with a strong focus on understanding and demonstrating public benefit. I regret the relative neglect of public benefit in the Charity Commission’s current strategy and rhetoric because it lies at the heart of that special bargain.
  3. By contrast, although standards of behaviour, ethics and human resource practice are extremely important for charities as for other sectors, they are not in my view what makes charities distinct. When it comes to an organisation’s standards in relation to staff and volunteer safety, and safeguarding against abuse, bullying and harassment, it is in my opinion mistaken to expect charities generally to aim for a different or higher standard than all other organisations in any sector that value human rights and equal respect for every person.
  4. The Charity Commission has suggested that charities should exhibit distinctively better behaviour than other sectors, but their efforts to define this special spirit of charity as altruism, selflessness and compassion have failed, partly because these are not satisfactory descriptions of many charitable endeavours such as the protection of the environment, education, sports and the arts, and partly because they apply to many non-charitable organisations in the voluntary and public sectors (not to mention family and neighbourly life) and hence cannot be distinctive.

What makes independent, voluntary organisations (including but not limited to  charities) distinct from the rest?

  1. Shared enthusiasm and love for a cause (reflecting underlying values and beliefs such as belief in God, commitment to liberty and/or equality, love of nature and the countryside, affection for animals, belief in education and so forth) is the actual reason for existence of every voluntary organisation (charitable and non-charitable alike) . Volunteer commitment and voluntary giving are also usually the means of survival. So without that sustaining enthusiasm, most voluntary organisations will eventually die. That is different from commercial or public sector organisations. It is a distinctive aspect of participation in a voluntary organisation (not just charities), and should permeate its culture.
  2. Voluntary organisations (not just charities) are also special because they are nurseries of active citizenship, democratic participation, care for others or for Creation, giving and volunteering, amplification of the voice of those too easily unheard, over and above what would be generated if they did not exist.
  3. Moreover, they are free to focus on their particular cause and give it priority over all other interests. That is a limitation, but also a distinctive strength: for with that trademark single-mindedness, without fear or favour, can come particular expertise as well undiluted determination to win greater understanding and recognition of a particular need, and give voice to the voiceless.
  4. None of these precious hallmarks of independent voluntary organisations is distinctive to registered charities alone.

What makes an individual charity or other voluntary organisation distinct from others?

  1. The cause? Not usually: the most common charitable objects – the relief and prevention of poverty, the advancement of religion or education, the relief of sickness, the protection of the environment and heritage, and so on – and even subsectors within them, still comprise hundreds or thousands of charities and do not connote individual distinctiveness.
  2. How about organisational values? Not usually. I think of the official values of ActionAid, with which I was associated for many years: Mutual Respect, Equity and Justice, Integrity, Solidarity with People Living in Poverty and Exclusion, Courage of Conviction, Independence, and Humility. These values were arrived at after countless hours of passionate debate, and mean a lot to every ActionAider, but in themselves they could be, and are, adopted by many other organisations. The same is true of the value statements of most charities of all shapes and sizes.
  3. So if it’s not usually the cause, the ethics and behaviour, or the organisational values of one voluntary organisation that make it distinct from others, what is it? Two things.
  4. Firstly, every voluntary organisation has its own unique story of how it has embodied and promoted a shared enthusiasm, whether secular or religious. History is a huge part of this story: the original motivation, the coming together of people who wanted to change or protect something, the founders, the early struggles, the symbolic moments, the great leaders, the feedback from users and admirers, the iconic quotations, the innovations and battle honours. It is difficult for those who have not worked in a charity or other voluntary body to understand how much its history and tradition often means to those who are part of it. But this is not “history” in the narrow sense of annals of the past; it is a living story, fertilised by enduring enthusiasm, beliefs and values, lending inspiration to tackling the challenges of today and tomorrow.
  5. Secondly, every voluntary organisation, especially those enjoying charitable privileges, needs to be making a distinctive contribution. For me, the most important question in the strategic review of any charity is: “What is it that we can do that no other organisation can do (either at all, or equally well, or in the same way) in our time and place?” If a charity cannot answer this question, it needs either a rethink or to be wound up or merged with a charity that does have such an answer.
  6. To my mind, therefore, what makes each charity special, in the sense of distinct from other charities is – or should be – its unique living story and its distinct contribution to society.

Being Special in the Age of the Coronavirus

  1. I hope and believe that a large majority of charities will live on despite the desperate difficulties of the present. Some hae died and will die; many will be weakened, to the painful detriment of society, but will survive and fight another day. That will indeed be because they are special – but in three different ways.
  • they are special because they are registered charities combining all the attributes listed in paragraph 3, strengthened (and differentiated from other voluntary organisations) by charities’ special bargain with the wider public (para 5-8 above)
  • they are special in the same way as non-charitable independent voluntary organisations, because they are animated by shared citizen enthusiasm for a cause with a relatively single-minded focus and expertise and they do it for love (paras 10-12)
  • they are special because each one has a unique story and a USP (paras 17-18), and the stronger the story and USP, the better in general will be the chances of recovery.
  1. So yes, charities are special all right – but please can we stop talking of three different ways of being special as if they were the same?

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 http://www.dsc.org.uk]

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 – http://www.icsa.org.uk) 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.