Two Johnsons Compared: LBJ and Boris

You might suppose that, apart from their names, Lyndon Johnson and Boris Johnson have extraordinarily little in common. In many ways that is true, but there is also something very significant that they share.

First, the differences. LBJ was immensely tall and gangly with enormous ears, deeply lined features and a habit of grabbing people by the lapel and invading their personal space – all very different from our own Mr Blobby. LBJ had no literary pretensions, had no gilded home life as a child or young man and did not throw bread rolls at people at Harvard or Princetown as he had nothing like Boris’s Oxford education. Indeed, LBJ was formed in the bitter Hill Country of Texas, brilliantly described in Robert Caro’s awesome biography, where his father ended up bust and humiliated, leaving Lyndon with an irresistible psychological yearning to win power and respect whatever the price and above all other considerations in life. In pursuit of his goals, he was a brilliant reader of people, especially their weak spots, and a careful listener when he needed to be. He had a genius for finding solutions to seemingly intractable political problems and was a brilliant  persuader and negotiator. I do not know if Boris shares any of those political gifts – we’ll soon find out. But there is another clear difference which leads me to doubt it: LBJ worked himself to the bone in pursuit of his goals, obsessively, day and night, leaving absolutely no detail to chance. Nobody could accuse Boris Johnson of that. LBJ never suffered from laziness or a sense of entitlement, leaving details to others.

So what did these two Johnsons have in common? Well, they both have a line in obscene swearing, and probably most of us would not envy the wife or partner of either. But the most important thing they share is an almost complete lack of adherence to any principle. (I shall come back to that “almost” in a moment.) Power and ambition comes first for both men. On civil rights, for example, LBJ could for many years simultaneously persuade the Southerners that he was one of them, and Liberals that he was really one of them. This mirrored many previous examples as he clawed his way to power, saying to each constituency what he thought it wanted to hear. Equally, it is a mystery to most of us as to what Boris Johnson stands for, apart from Boris Johnson. In both cases, they could the day after tomorrow be arguing with passion the exact opposite of the case it suits them to argue passionately today – and they are both very good actors.

If you assume this characteristic is self evidently a weakness, please think again. It did not do LBJ much harm. Nor has it done much harm to Boris so far, despite all the huffing from the Dominic Grieves or Max Hastings. The lack of ideological encumbrance can be a gift. If LBJ had been a lifelong Liberal, he could not possibly have persuaded the US Senate in 1957 to pass the first civil rights bill for many decades. He could do it because he was so good at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, combined with political acumen and ruthless application of pressure plus cynical alliances. Those who may be rubbing their hands on the Left of politics because they think Boris Johnson will be a right wing ideologue driving reasonable people away are probably making a big mistake, precisely because Boris is not an ideologue or even an idealist, having no apparent principles whatever. That means he can do all sorts of things that the true believers – the Free Traders, the Market Economists, the Shrink the Staters, the true Little Englanders, the Blimps, the social reactionaries, the pro-Business and pro-private-sector zealots – would never do. Political calculation is surely Boris’s only constraint. He will do whatever he thinks is required to stay in power once he has it. To use his own recent phrase, expect a “Minestrone” of a Government if Brexit allows, with lots of tasty ingredients that appeal to different political constituencies. That makes him a much more formidable political opponent than some on the Left may assume.

Maybe there are straws in the wind in his track record as London Mayor. There is some truth in the claim that he “hugged” his public servants. I have heard people from the quite radical organisation London Citizens, closely associated with the Living Wage, praise him as a collaborator in some dimensions by comparison with Ken Livingstone. Boris made mistakes all right, but was hardly to be pigeon-holed as a right-wing ideologue; he did what he thought he had to do to remain in office. He would surely do the same if he were Prime Minister. Whether he is skilful, astute, determined, driven and hard working enough to rival LBJ is quite another matter.

I said that LBJ was “almost” completely devoid of principle. His thirst for power always came first, overwhelming any other principle. But when the cause of the poor and down-trodden became aligned with his political ambitions, he showed, according to Robert Caro,  that he did have principles after all. His experience of poverty and humilation in the Hill Country had left an additional legacy inside him, and it showed in 1957 and later when he did more as President for black American rights, arguably, than any US President apart from Abraham Lincoln. If ever Prime Minister Boris Johnson feels secure in his powerful position, will there be any comparable revelation? Is there something, once ambition for power is satisfied, that he might then want to do for more principled reasons? Only then would we find out if Boris Johnson has “almost” no principles, like LBJ, or none at all. In either case: ideologues and idealists, beware! Politicians who have no (or almost no) principles can be a lot more effective than you like to think.


“Once an ActionAider, always an ActionAider”: why?

Why is ActionAid so special to those who have worked in it?

  1. I have just stepped down from the international Board of ActionAid International (AAI) after six years, having served previously as Chair of ActionAid UK. During that time I have watched several key staff who had left ActionAid return, with the feeling that they were coming back home. Many Board members who finish their terms of office keep a special place for ActionAid in their hearts. I know I shall. No doubt other great secular charities have the same effect, as faith charities can do, on those who commit themselves to them, but ActionAid is the one I know that has engendered the deepest sense of enduring loyalty, identity and hope. I shall try to explain why.

Rooted in communities and movements of the poor and excluded

  1. To understand ActionAid, you have ideally to sit cross-legged on a grubby tarpaulin in a circle with representatives of some of the poorest, most multiply disadvantaged people on earth, listening as they gradually find the courage and confidence to define what they need and want and to set about obtaining it. These are the REFLECT circles, drawing on simple methods of participatory learning and empowerment that are part of ActionAid’s DNA.
  2. As people’s demands begin to crystallise, ActionAid and its local partners work with them to fashion a strategy including priorities, winning access to those with power and responsibility and holding them to account for their obligations to the people they govern or employ. Service delivery is part of the mix, but not for its own sake: it is one part of a wider approach based on mobilising people to assert their own rights.
  3. A traditional concept of charity involves one fortunate and wealthier side giving opportunities and resources to chosen, less fortunate people, without necessarily changing the unequal power relations between the two sides. ActionAid International long ago turned its back officially on that model. It is more interested in enabling people with apparently no power or control over their lives progressively to develop, assert and use it. Correcting the unequal power relationships that underpin all sorts of injustices, including poverty, is at the core of ActionAid’s whole approach. Yet this is not principally a function of intellectualised analysis: it is all rooted in those circles of people reflecting on their lives, taking action to assert their rights, learning from their success or failure, trying again, linking up with others in the same situation, giving each other hope, and creating social movements for change led by poor and marginalised people themselves. ActionAid is an unapologetic champion and supporter of those social movements for justice; of progressive people power.
  4. One of the reasons you never fully “leave” ActionAid is the memories of those sessions listening to the voices of, say, Muslim women living as a small minority in Nepal, or the manual scavengers among Dalit people in India, or abused women in Kenya mobilising against violence, or street vendors, or sex workers, bonded labourers, the landless, the slum dwellers, the vulnerable migrant workers, the fisher folk thrown out of their traditional fishing grounds and beaches, people fleeing from brutal land grabs by powerful corporations and Government cronies – now speaking out, with their own confident leadership – especially women’s leadership – joining forces with others, learning to be disciplined as well as courageous, demanding, demonstrating, negotiating, strategizing as circumstances might dictate, and refusing to accept the gross injustices that are part of their daily lives. That is ActionAid. Who could just walk away and forget that?

In it for the long term

  1. There is a paradoxical reason why ActionAid adopted this radical approach to development. It is that its principal funding model has been conservative: child sponsorship. You might assume that child sponsorship is the epitome of traditional charity: a powerful and wealthy person with a conscience in the global north takes pity on a child in a developing country and creates better life chances for that child. And child sponsorship can indeed be like that, but there is another side to it. For child sponsorship provides long-lasting, faithful giving at a high level, with few strings attached. Like Old Father Thames, it just keeps rolling along. And the receiving organisation has great independence as well as time. So ActionAid and its local partners do not limit their ambitions to the compass of a three year grant, but create locally based rights programmes lasting ten years or more. That makes possible the gradual development of women’s leadership even where there are deeply entrenched cultural resistances. It makes possible the progressive growth of confidence and agency in communities used to despair. Bottom up becomes thinkable and doable, and can spread through linkages to the regional, national and global. This long term perspective is a crucial part of ActionAid’s distinctive contribution over the years.
  2. So ActionAid has sought to fashion child sponsorship so that it does not contradict its radical programming and commitment to a human rights based approach. The child represents the hopes and life chances not only of children generally but the whole community on whom that child depends. The child needs education, one of ActionAid’s traditional heartlands. The child will also join clubs and young people’s groups and movements to assert child rights and grow into activists for a better world. I have come across ActionAid staff and Board members who were once children sponsored by ActionAid. Despite all these efforts, elements of contradiction can persist. The search is on for alternatives to child sponsorship that may produce the same benefits for people’s long term struggles – which is not at all easy.

Feminism and women’s rights

  1. Many years’ experience of rooted campaigns for human rights and justice, already sketched, have educated ActionAid not only into championing women’s rights as key to development – which INGO or even Government donor these days does not? – but as an inherent part of seeking social justice for its own sake. Women in all those REFLECT circles have learnt, and we have learnt with them, that patriarchy is a dominant factor in their traditional powerlessness and stunted life chances. So a preoccupation with enabling women’s rights and women’s leadership has become ever more salient in ActionAid’s work. And once you recognise the baleful nature of patriarchy and its toxic cultural norms, seeing how the political and personal intersect, you cannot but begin to notice that all is not well in your own organisation and behaviour. When I first joined ActionAid, the “f” word – feminism – created too much anxiety and confusion to make it into the international strategy. Not now. The Federation has now committed itself to model feminist leadership, interpreting its unchanging values and all its strategic commitments, both external and internal, through a feminist lens. A major consultative and learning exercise on feminist leadership has produced the Top Ten Basics of feminist leadership as we seek to understand and effect it, now being rolled out across the Federation. Any organisation that claims to be a model for others is setting itself up for a big fall, and ActionAid does not purport to do so. Our efforts have been imperfect and there is a massive journey ahead before all sorts of manifestations of patriarchy will be overcome. But ActionAid is at least deliberately and determinedly on that journey.

Transformed Governance – shifting power downwards

  1. Many readers may know that ActionAid was one of the first to move its official Headquarters to the global South – in this case, South Africa. But more important was the sharing of power. Instead of barking orders out from London, ActionAid UK agreed to share power in line with its values and beliefs that more equal power relationships were the key to a more just world free of poverty. Country programmes would be encouraged to put down roots, and in due course develop their own local boards, aiming to become an equal member of a new Federation. All members of the Federation, regardless of size and income, would be equal and have the same voting power in the Federation’s sovereign Assembly. The Assembly would be composed of all the members, a large majority of whom are developing countries. Meanwhile, the developing country members are accountable to their own assemblies, in many cases including representatives of social movements, communities of people suffering from exclusion and poverty, and young people with uncertain futures. This works patchily in practice, but nonetheless among INGOs ActionAid has thrust power and accountability down closer to the people living in poverty than most of its peers.
  2. The Assembly appoints an international Board which leads the Federation and employs the General Secretariat. Assembly, Board and Secretariat are all magnificently diverse international bodies. It has been symbolically important that the Chairs of the Federation have so far been strong, black African women, but surrounded by fellow Board and Assembly members from every continent, and an astonishing variety of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds, bound together by a passionate commitment to ActionAid and its cause. To be part of these bodies and work with the Secretariat has been one of the great privileges of my life. On a good day, it also makes for dancing, singing and enormous celebrations of common humanity and values as all the barriers fall away.
  3. Needless to say, the power of money does not die just because you change your model of governance. On the other hand, I have many times seen motions from richer members of ActionAid voted down by the majority. Real power sharing is imperfect work in progress. Feminist leadership is imperfect work in progress. Bringing decisions down to the social movements of people living in poverty is imperfect work in progress. Empowering movements of young people is imperfect work in progress. ActionAid is imperfect work in progress. Which great charity isn’t? But I hope to have conveyed why I love this one. In a world where so much that is wrong is attributable to the control and abuse of power, ActionAid is, to me and so many others, particularly poor and excluded women, a beacon of hope. Stay strong, ActionAiders!


Let’s Not Learn the Wrong Lessons from Oxfam


Lessons drawn from the Oxfam safeguarding scandal have frequently been couched in moral terms – we should behave more charitably and selflessly, and give more priority to being ethical. But Oxfam’s failure not to invest more time and resources from 2012 into safeguarding was not to do with any moral or ethical deficit in its leadership. It was to do with a daunting range of competing claims on their attention, all of them morally compelling. Oxfam’s leaders were managing a whole new dimension of risk arising from a values-driven cultural and organisational upheaval resulting in the creation of Oxfam International as a better way of pursuing their mission. This context, lacking from the Charity Commission’s report, will help us to draw the right lessons, rather than unhelpful moral soundbites.

  1. There has been a high moral tone in the reactions to the report of the Charity Commission on the Oxfam scandal. I want to explore the assumptions behind these reactions[1]. My perspective is informed by having conducted an independent governance review for Oxfam GB shortly before the safeguarding scandal really took off, followed by a review of safeguarding governance which, in the words of the Charity Commission’s report, was overtaken by events in the shape of further revelations, the Charity Commission’s statutory Inquiry and independent reviews commissioned by them. The contents of my reviews remain confidential.  I am writing here to express my personal opinions only, not at the behest or on behalf of anyone in or connected with Oxfam. Nobody in or connected with Oxfam has seen this blog before publication.
  2. In her Foreword to the Report, the Chair of the Charity Commission says “Leadership of any size of charity means pursuing a charitable mission selflessly and putting that mission before anything else”. The implication in this context is that Oxfam’s leaders were guilty of putting selfish considerations ahead of their mission. She continues: “ultimately being a charity is more than just what you do, it is about the way in which you do it.” In her speeches she has elaborated that charities need to change their behaviour and attitudes to become more selfless and charitable as defined by public expectations. The Chief Executive of the Charity Commission writes that “Over a period of years, Oxfam‘s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.” The device of personalising a culture falls short of saying in terms that the Trustees and staff leaders of Oxfam tolerated poor behaviour and lost sight of their values – but only just. NCVO has said “…once again the key lesson for all of us is that, in order to “do good” and create positive change in the world, we must also “be good” and operate at the highest ethical standards.”
  3. Oxfam has repeatedly apologised for the unacceptable actions of some of its representatives in Haiti, breaching its own Code of Conduct, and for the flaws in the response and subsequent reporting by its leadership in Oxford in 2011. They have also acknowledged that the investment of resources in its specialist safeguarding unit since 2012 was inadequate: this is the time period on which I want to focus. They have accepted the findings of the Charity Commission Inquiry and are working on a major change programme. Oxfam have taken a mighty hit on behalf of all of us who were no more, and in many cases less, aware and well equipped than Oxfam in the dimension of safeguarding and aspects of HR culture. There are plenty of vital lessons for all of us from the Charity Commission Report and the parallel Oxfam Independent Commission Report. Let us make sure they are the right lessons.


The Evidence does not support sweeping generalisations about moral or ethical failures by Oxfam’s leadership


  1. It is one thing to display moral and ethical flaws. It is another thing to make difficult choices between many different requirements, all morally and ethically weighty, competing for attention and resources, in the years after 2012. The problem was not that Oxfam’s leaders were not good, ethical people, working hard for Oxfam to be good as well as do good. They were. With the awareness of hindsight they would obviously have made different choices and paid more attention to safeguarding, but that is not the same as implying they were selfish or promoting concerns other than the mission.
  2. A little context may help, which for whatever reason was not brought out in the Charity Commission Report. In this period post 2012 Oxfam was turning itself into a reformed Confederation. Instead of being a looser association of different Oxfams, controlled from the global north, resulting sometimes in six or more different Oxfams operating in the same developing country with different systems, cultures and priorities, a truly enormous effort was made to create a powerful Oxfam International. This would be based eventually in the global South, and led by the iconic Winnie Biniyama from Uganda. It would be a unified operation managing all Oxfam’s programmes while one (not up to six or more) Northern member provided the logistical and organisational back-up in each country. Regional structures were removed and replaced with other arrangements, and responsibility for other Confederation-wide functions (such as HR, security, and safeguarding) would in time be transferred to Oxfam International. That is a highly oversimplified account of a mind-blowingly complex set of negotiations and an implementation process devouring much leadership attention during these years.
  3. The aim – fundamentally ethical – was precisely to attend not just to the “worthy” cause of poverty reduction and human rights but to the way in which the cause should be pursued. The driver was a desire to achieve an organisation that more truly reflected Oxfam’s values about empowerment and putting the needs of the world’s poor above the sectional or selfish interests of different Oxfams from developed countries.  It was also to eliminate waste of charitable resources and incoherence, empower an international staff closer to the people in developing countries themselves, working in a united way to a strategy agreed by all Oxfam’s constituent parts, achieving greater impact. It was a major sharing of power – not easy for any organisation like Oxfam GB and the other powerful Oxfam Affiliates to contemplate.
  4. None played a more critical leadership role in this huge cultural and logistical upheaval than Oxfam GB, whose unrestricted funds were stretched to the limit by the demands of financing this period of transformation and enabling Oxfam International to achieve the Confederation’s vision in practice. It involved many painful staff cuts in the Oxfam GB staff establishment across the globe. In my view it was risky, courageous, necessary, expensive, and the complete opposite of selfish or unethical or not being good. It was precisely about putting mission ahead of everything else. It is still work in progress, and further radical reform would be needed to achieve the level of power-sharing and democratisation of the organisation with which I am connected, ActionAid. But still, the transformation has been a huge achievement – on top of the work Oxfam does every day anyway!
  5. Now consider the implications for the leadership of Oxfam GB – senior staff and Trustees, particularly when it comes to handling risks of different kinds. What were the priorities for attention? There were enormous risks in the radical alteration of different streams of accountability, responsibility and money flowing through Oxfam’s complex structures. How could risks be handled when up to six Affiliates in a country handed employer, financial and HR functions over to one plus Oxfam International, in one country after another where Oxfam worked? When would it be safe enough for different functions previously carried out by Oxfam GB to be transferred to Oxfam International? On exactly what basis and timescale? How would the envisaged assignment of management authority to Oxfam International sit alongside the continuing responsibility of Oxfam GB to be employers of the staff in many countries and provide key infrastructure , services and money – and where would that leave the fiduciary and legal responsibilities of the GB Trustees? And how could they ensure the whole change was actually working well for beneficiaries, despite the upheaval? When it came to risk management and organisational improvement, this was the number one concern of the GB Trustees and key staff leaders for years. If you give away and share power, for value-based and ethical reasons, what happens to your responsibilities – to millions of beneficiaries, to donors, to regulators, to the law? This was an entire layer of risk management on top of the “normal” egregious demands on any global institution working in the most difficult environments. No wonder the Commission’s Report shows the relevant Board Committee struggling with massive agendas.


Do not judge a charity or its leaders overall by looking at one dimension of its practice in isolation


  1. Oxfam have not used the facts about their international transformation as an excuse for shameful behaviour by its representatives in Haiti in 2011 in contravention of their own Code of Conduct, or for subsequent misjudgements, inadequate disclosures, or for insufficient attention to specific safeguarding allegations and to safeguarding as an issue. Nor do I. My argument is that such failings in 2012 onwards do not stem from being unethical, or from a “failure of moral leadership” (thank you, Penny Mordaunt), or from being merely “well intentioned” (in Baroness Stowell’s condescending phrase). The Trustees were identifying and struggling with risk assessment and management in multiple dimensions – and I believe that anybody close to them will tell you that they did so, in general, with a high degree of conscientiousness and capability, on many occasions putting sustained pressure on staff and insisting on more attention to risks they felt might be being neglected.
  2. Let us remember that they had to attend to risks of aid diversion, eg to terrorists, on which the former Chair of the Charity Commission made a number of dramatic statements to the media. They had to attend to fraud and other forms of corruption. They had to attend to auditing complex, and changing, financial flows. They had to attend to the security of Oxfam’s staff, partners and representatives working in war zones. They had to attend to the fundraising scandal and effect permanent improvements in the management of outsourced marketing. They had to attend to data protection. They had to attend to obtaining proper value for money from Oxfam’s programmes and to adherence to Oxfam’s operating manuals. They had to attend to assessing the impact of many different programmes round the globe. The Commission’s report considers safeguarding in isolation, but Oxfam’s Trustees and senior staff could not.
  3. Against this background, Oxfam was one of the first INGOs to set up a separate safeguarding unit. As is acknowledged in the Report, it was regarded as an example of best practice in some respects by its peers and an independent academic review. Yes, it was under-resourced, but I dare say every single unit in Oxfam GB and Oxfam International felt, and in many cases were, under-resourced. Safeguarding had to make its pitch against the claims of all the other aspects of ethical risk management and organisational hygiene mentioned above, and all the other claims on Oxfam GB’s unrestricted funds. If the Charity Commission Chief Executive concludes that “Oxfam’s culture tolerated poor behaviour” it must also be said in fairness that “Oxfam’s culture” in other dimensions tightened the screw on poor behaviour and risks and managed a massive additional layer of risk involved in the creation of Oxfam International. Note that Oxfam GB won the Charities Against Fraud Award in 2018 – the judges’ comments suggest that “Oxfam’s culture” has had its successes as well as failures.


  1. The reported inadequacies of safeguarding resourcing and management should not be minimised, but understood in this wider context. Beware of sweeping generalised conclusions about Oxfam as a whole operation or its Trustees and other leaders, or even its “culture”, as if it were a monolith.
  2. Looking at the whole picture, as Oxfam’s leadership must do, would it have obviously been a good ethical move to withdraw some of the funding from the fledgling Oxfam International, weakening and delaying its proper fruition, in order to swell the funding on safeguarding more quickly? Would it have been obviously a good ethical move if the funding and staffing behind the award-winning anti-fraud operation had been diverted to safeguarding instead?  Would it have been obviously more ethical to withdraw funding from Oxfam’s ground breaking research and awareness-raising work on worsening global inequality or the agony of the Yemen? With hindsight, Mark Goldring has acknowledged that more priority should have been given to safeguarding sooner, but if you make a choice that you regret afterwards it is not because you are selfish, ethically defective or inattentive to being good, it is because you are having to make tricky judgement calls among competing priorities, all of which are morally compelling.


Confront the necessity for spending on staff and administration, which may not be what “the public” , or many donors, want


  1. I feel sure there was unease in Oxfam, as in many other charities, about the rising tide of resources required to satisfy rising regulatory standards and strengthen the organisation and its administration, as opposed to direct spending on charitable activities. This unease was greatly increased in Oxfam’s case at that time because of the volume of money going into the creation of Oxfam International.
  2. The Charity Commission Report is admirably robust that adequate investment in safeguarding must not be regarded as a desirable add on but as a fundamental requirement of being a good charity. But the Charity Commission is not always so robust or explicit. For it is a pervasive public myth that big charities like Oxfam have excessive overheads and spend lots of unnecessary money on administration (and of course staff salaries) instead of getting it through to people in need on the front line. These myths appear clearly in the Commission’s own research. Yet the Commission’s Chair says that it is not the Commission’s job to try to influence the “so-called myths” of the public, but rather to tell charities what the public expects. Can this still be a tenable position?


Is it about being more charitable and “good”, or more feminist?


  1. A major component of the cultural change that is required in charities and other sectors is to do with patriarchy. The incoming Secretary General of Oxfam GB, Danny Sriskandaraja, has rightly said that “we need to make a concerted explicit effort to deconstruct the power inequities that are all too easily built into and perpetuated by, institutions like ours”. All across society we have become much more aware of what happens when unequal power situations are linked to sexual appetite or cruelty. This is particularly true of the power many men still exercise over women and the sense of entitlement and objectification that derives from patriarchy. We now have to act on that awareness effectively. This is not about being more selfless, but more feminist. That is one of the reasons why ActionAid incorporated into its current international strategy an explicit commitment to feminist leadership principles, now being rolled out across the whole Federation. Vague injunctions to behave better and be selfless and charitable, don’t measure up to the challenges of patriarchy and its toxic cultural norms.


Acknowledge the inter-dependence of culture, Codes, policies and processes


  1. There is also a tendency to take the line that “policies and processes are of course important BUT….” And what follows is that it is above all leadership, “culture”, attitudes and behaviour that must change. Yes and no. It’s a false polarity. Leadership is certainly key. But we are not suddenly, or even eventually, going to make the people who involve themselves in charities more moral by telling them to be more moral. We shall all continue to have feet of clay. There will always be difficult competition for attention between compelling moral and ethical demands, of which safeguarding is one. But awareness can change, as it has about safeguarding and about women’s experience of sexual harassment, for instance, and then we need to take this on board not with moral rhetoric but effective action. And we cannot do that without the right processes, codes and policies.
  2. We need processes like AwayDays and Board self-reviews, which create opportunities to revisit our mission and refresh our values, think hard about how we can realise them better, and what kind of leaders we aspire to be. It may also be the deliberate process of creating safe spaces for women that enables them to articulate their perspectives and demands and be part of decision-making. We need regular strategic reviews that map the practical pathways to cultural change along with all other aspects of mission, making sure we are if possible ahead of, rather than behind, changing societal norms. We need Codes and policies, based on inclusive consultation and cold eyed analysis, to tell us what is expected, and outlawed, for every representative of our charity.
  3. After all it is not so simple to define “being good and behaving well”. Does it mean, for instance, we should never have a sexual relationship with any more junior staff member of our charity? What disclosures about our private lives should be made to whom? Does it mean banning sex with prostitutes for all representatives of the charity, in and out of work? How do we know when sexual harassment is different from a sexist compliment or a clumsy sexual advance? We need carefully considered Codes to clarify these and many other issues. We need training and refresher courses to embed these Codes so they are not neglected. We need an HR system that makes clear that recruitment, task setting, performance management, appraisal, promotional prospects, all integrate the requirements of our Code of conduct and values – your advancement will crucially depend on whether you embody and support them.
  4. In bigger charities, we need tough, adequately resourced internal audit and safeguarding functions with robust independence from line management and dotted lines through direct to the Board. In that sense, it is policies, Codes, processes, and formal accountabilities that embed our values, make them real in practice and, over time, change our culture in those areas where it needs to change, and strengthen it in those areas where it is already supporting our mission (because culture in many big organisations is not monolithic, all good or all bad). We need leaders who back these processes and Codes to the hilt, whatever the many other ethical demands on their attention. And it all costs time and money.


Don’t imply it is easy if only you were more ethical


  1. Some of this is really difficult. This is partly because, if safeguarding is the preoccupation today in the wake of particular scandals, tomorrow it can be terrorism again, or fundraising again, or fraud, or corruption, or aid diversion, or poor value for money, or massive data breaches, or poor impact – all important moral concerns. So we have to maintain a balanced overview, trying to ration and regulate our attention so as not to lose sight of any of the many relevant risks to our mission and values. We have to make the best choices we can, knowing that we will sometimes, with hindsight, turn out to be wrong.
  2. It is also difficult because the granular detail of turning high principles into consistent practice is difficult and, sometimes, perceived as bureaucratic and boring. In some popular circles it is decried as “political correctness”. Of course, in all kinds of charities and other organisations passionate, “can-do” people trying to change the world, heal the sick, support a struggling family, win a campaign, are impatient with what they may perceive to be centralised bureaucratic demands such as standardised record-keeping, audit trails or multiple questionnaires and a snowstorm of lengthy policies coming down from the centre. Cultural tensions of this kind will never be eliminated; they have to be worked at perpetually.
  3. So it will never be easy, and reducing the issues to simplistic moral precepts really does not help. Let’s learn the right lessons, as Oxfam surely is now doing and will continue to do.

[1] I am also Vice Chair of ActionAid, have been Chair or Vice Chair of six UK charities, and Chief Executive of others, and remain a Trustee of Directory of Social Change and two other charities. I was a Board Member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010. I write here in in individual and personal capacity only.

The Civil Society Futures Report – some strengths and weaknesses

The Civil Society Futures initiative, generously funded by a consortium of grant giving charitable trusts and supported by the NCVO, reported its findings in November 2018. It was a very difficult assignment: because civil society is so vast and amorphous, and “the future” so boundless, coherent analysis is really difficult. Now that some of the dust has settled, what are the strengths and weaknesses of what the initiative came up with?

The format of the reporting is quite fragmented, with busy happenings on screen as you try to read the report, and many different stories, blogs and case studies in different parts of the website. A fuddy-duddy like me found this quite challenging, and it is a serious caveat that I may easily have missed elements that might modify my judgements. Along with the vast majority of readers, I don’t pretend to have read everything on the website, but I tried to read the main report fairly.


  1. I am personally sympathetic to the Inquiry’s political position that it is desirable for many people in our society to have a stronger sense of participation, power, agency and control over their own lives, with opportunities to contribute to society underpinning a sense of self worth. Empowerment is one of the key contributions made by some parts of civil society. It is legitimate and inevitable that the Inquiry should be selective, define its own values and take sides, so long as this is transparent and explicit; and empowerment and the four elements in the “PACT” that it recommends – Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust – truly deserve more concerted attention and development by many civil society organisations.
  2. Those elements are certainly relevant to addressing some of the key worrying trends in our society identified by the Inquiry, such as a sense of alienation and powerlessness, inequality and corrosive social divisions.
  3. I also welcome the ambition of the Inquiry for civil society – we are urged to aim high, to have confidence that if we do we can transform society for the better as voluntary organisations have done before. As part of that, the report shows rugged support for the campaigning role of civil society, giving voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless, helping to shape collective decisions. Another accurate emphasis is on bridging divides in society and helping “community” to be a living reality rather than a myth that masks atomisation and fatalism.
  4. Among the relatively sparse recommendations as to who needs to do what to make such desirable outcomes more likely, is the valuable notion of a People Power Grid of social infrastructure, including a proliferation of people and organisations who connect  people and catalyse community development. This will indeed be a positive focus for a range of funders, other civil society organisations and state agencies, although it was not entirely clear to me how this relates to more conventional infrastructure such as Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Bureaux and the like, nor what the Inquiry thinks about them.
  5. There is also strong awareness in the report of existential environmental crises including global warming and diminishing biodiversity – although I found myself unsure how far the recommendations of the report are relevant to tackling these.                                                                                                                                                                  Weaknesses
  6. The Report itself fails to engage with the huge problems of definition of civil society. I may have missed something but I was never sure who the Report is talking about and whether, for example, trade unions were in or out. Nor is the Report explicit about being deliberately selective, addressing certain key issues that apply to some organisations but not others, and not trying to be comprehensive. As a result its sweeping generalisations are inapplicable to large swathes of civil society and this becomes an irritating weakness:
  • “Civil society risks becoming irrelevant if we do not change”. But why should my local cinema club, football club, dance evening, women’s choir, gentlemen’s discussion group, park run, pigeon fanciers’ club become irrelevant?
  • “All of us in civil society” should commit to PACT. Really? All of the above? The Pitcombe cooking club must “revolutionise its approach” to accountability – so that its members are “more accountable to each other and to future generations?”
  • “Bridging frequent social divides in our society “is the heart of civil society’s purpose”. Is it? Or just some kinds of civil society organisations? Many civil society organisations bring like-minded people or those with shared enthusiasms together for purposes of enjoyment and conviviality. Many others are, quite properly, contentious, promoting a cause that will divide opinion sharply. Others may be quite sectarian – think of The Christian Institute, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and loads of others.
  • There is “an urgent call for us all to behave differently”. All? This is even worse than the Charity Commission Chair’s current rhetoric because it covers the entire civil society, not just 168,000 charities!
  1. For a Report emphasising the need for radical shifts of power, with an experienced advisory group, it is extraordinary that the analysis is ungendered. There is virtually no mention of systematic, patriarchal bias against the rights of women. The voice of women’s struggles is virtually absent, unless someone else has noticed it on other parts of the website. This seems an embarrassing, puzzling omission. “Our society is divided between urban and rural, between north and south, between young and old. It is still deeply divided on racial and class lines.” Anyone spot the missing division? Feminists, eat your hearts out.
  2. In so far as we are talking about measuring up to the massive challenges of inequality, damaged democracy, climate change, alienation etc, there is little recognition of the vast importance of the state and politics. It is not right to load too many expectations onto civil society’s own activities alone. Julia has gone out of her way to tell charities they mustn’t expect the Government to do everything and should pull their own fingers out but this can tip over into vitiating the balance and realism of the Inquiry. Scandinavian countries who do very well on indices of happiness and quality of life have relatively stronger states and less well developed civil societies than we do, but this is not explored. Similarly, the Report’s history is sometimes one-eyed: “When the Industrial Revolution transformed our cities, it was civil society that organised to combat the squalor and chaos” – er, only up to a point. Major transformation had to await the intervention of the state, for example Chadwick’s sewerage and public health systems, at last putting an end to grotesque epidemics caused by foul water, just as later it was the state that transformed education, health, working conditions in mines and factories and many other facets of life.
  3. The Report places inordinate weight on existing civil society organisations transforming themselves. “Civil society will not be able to do this (put itself at the heart of tackling massive social and political challenges) without changing itself.” This analysis  involves three problems:
  • An untenable level of generalisation
  • Portrayal of current civil society, overall, as predominantly jaded, in need of massive injection of energy, rebirth; not fit for purpose, lacking confidence, skills and credibility…. I think this is too negative. It is a very mixed picture, of course, but there is plenty of surging life, energy and innovation in many civil society organisations. Good organisations regularly review their strategy and external environment and seek to renew themselves in their regular cycles of strategic review. Many people in our sector have been worrying away about how to be more responsive to users and about issues of power, accountability and community development for many decades. Different solutions come and go in waves over the years.
  • Vagueness as to why many civil society organisations, eg big specialist charities, should want to transform themselves when they may be achieving their charitable objectives well already. Their objectives may not include empowering local communities. If RSPB were to make adjustments to how it listens to its members (how?) why would it make more than a very marginal or zero difference to the challenges enumerated in the Report? Ditto CRUK and many others?
  1. Implicit vague smearing of big charities. At the centre of alleged jadedness and wasted opportunities in the Report are, by implication, anonymised big charities. We are told they need to change the fastest as part of the necessary revolution. But we don’t know who they are. The only ones mentioned explicitly by Julia Unwin in a previous article are Barnardos, RSPB, Red Cross and Cancer Research UK. I have already challenged Julia to explain exactly what kind of transformation of these organisations can properly be expected that would advance their charitable objectives:


she did kindly respond with a blog, but in my view left some points unanswered. Who are the others that need to change fast? Why should Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth change, if global warming is to be combatted? Why should the Ramblers be transformed – what exactly do we want that very democratic organisation to do differently? The Church of England, with all its community building activities? What is the nature of the recommended revolution in such charities and why is it likely to be key to the big challenges of society?  Is the challenge the same for big charities comprised of local branches as for centralised ones? Local activists may feel CRUK and Barnardos and the rest do little for them. Maybe that’s because it isn’t their job? If we are going to assign pride of place in the revolution to big charities transforming themselves, we need more careful distinctions between charities of different structures, governance, and purposes; and much greater clarity on what the nature of the challenge to them is.

  1. Vagueness on building trust. Trust is “our core currency and foundation”, says the report. (Many professions and other occupations would say the same.) We are supposed to devote time and resources to building trust (exactly whose trust?) and “earning trust by staying true to our values, standing up for them, and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them”. One can only agree, but who is NOT staying true to their values – is this supposed to be a general problem throughout the vastness of civil society, or is it all those big charities or just a few of them who have allegedly lost their vision? What really are we talking about?
  2. All in all, there are really admirable elements. But there are also too many of these problems and weaknesses. One might see it as a polemic – passionate, interesting, but flawed. As a result,  the “urgent call for us all to behave differently” doesn’t seem likely to cut through.

Salute to Sir Stuart Etherington

We have been served notice that a very large, distinctive tree in the civil society forest will fall later this year. Sir Stuart Etherington is to step down from his post as Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for the last 25 years.

Under Stuart, the independence of the NCVO has been greatly strengthened. It is no longer dependent on Government grants, and a much larger proportion of its income and legitimacy depends on its massively expanded membership. It is financially relatively stable. It is well organised, with a talented staff. You will not always agree with what Stuart or the NCVO say, but you will always treat them with respect, because it is always thought through carefully (possibly unless the Chair occasionally breaks loose, enhancing the gaiety of the nation). In a fractious sector, NCVO’s status and importance is very widely recognised: quite an achievement.

Stuart is a very shrewd analyst, an exceptional mind, enriched by so much experience of the sector in interaction with other key institutions and wider social trends. I have always been impressed by that analytical, independent-minded thoughtfulness, ever since I first came across him as Chief Executive of RNIB. He also has a good political nose and a rugged sense of what is deliverable. He will pounce on opportunities for a strategic re-think that is calculated to strengthen the sector – think of the Nicholas Deakin report, for example, or the seminal working group under Winifred Tumim that put public benefit on the map as the key to understanding the obligations of charities, the review of charity fundraising when it was in a mess, and more recently the review of charity taxation and charity ethics.

He is good at relationships with successive Ministers for Civil Society, and on the whole with the Charity Commission even when they and NCVO disagree, which they ought to from time to time. Sir Stuart is a powerful character with strong views, and like a gigantic mongoose will rush to defend his pups in the shape of the interests and key positions of his organisation, or the wider sector, against threats. That means there are always those who may be smarting from a forceful put-down.  Sometimes, the sector needs, and has, leaders of both sexes who can be bruisers at times: Stuart is one. But in his case it is all done with the best interests of the sector at heart.

Like all of us, he has faults, but I think he knows better than anyone else what they are. It is impossible to run the NCVO, with all the complex  pressures on it, without upsetting some of us occasionally and without sometimes making a judgement call that doesn’t work out. Again, he knows what they are.

But the crucial point about Stuart, even more than his brilliant abilities, is this: beneath his formidable, occasionally pompous image beats a big heart imbued with the love of the voluntary sector.

Every great tree has its time. But it will nevertheless be sad to see this one go.

An “inconvenient truth” for Charity Commission: the public do not know what charities are.

Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Charity Commission has said it repeatedly. It is not the Commission’s job to educate the public about charities. Its job is to tell charities what the public expects and wants from them. That’s the core of its new Statement of Strategic Intent.

Therein lies a paradox. For the Commission’s own research reveals that the public in general don’t know what charities are.

Let us recall the Charity Commission’s publication of research by Populus in July 2018. A sample of over 2000 members of the public were asked what the word “charities” brought to mind. The result was a grand total of about 9 named charities, all big national names, obviously led by Oxfam, in the wake of the scandal. The sample mentioned only limited categories of charities: mainly medical/cancer, children and animals. Populus commented: “Very few respondents immediately thought of local charities [ie the overwhelming majority of all charities in real life], educational organisations or cultural institutions.” They might have added, nor did respondents  think of  religious charities (one in six or so of all charities), environmental, community development or human rights charities either. Populus add: “This context must be borne in mind when interpreting public trust in charities”.

Subsequent Populus focus group research for the Commission found exactly the same: “It was large, household names which they first thought of when appraising the sector”, Populus report. No surprise there, so that might leave about 167,990 others.  There is also evidence of what the Chair has described as “so-called myths”: “at best, they (the focus groups) thought that large charities wasted vast amounts on unnecessary bureaucracy, and at worst, they felt that many were mechanisms for enriching senior charity workers that went against the spirit of charity”. And as one group member put it, “What can be quite disconcerting is when 80 per cent of the donations are going to administration, so less than 20 per cent of the pound is going to the cause on the ground”.

Perhaps the biggest problem in basing your Strategic Intent too heavily on public attitudes towards charities, as explored in such research, is that very many of our fellow citizens don’t know that churches and other faith institutions are charities. They don’t know that universities and lots of schools are charities. They don’t know that theatres, operas, great concert halls are charities; nor many think tanks, professional associations, hospitals, gyms, many sorts of sports organisations and fitness centres. They don’t know much about the far greater multitudes of small local charities. When the researchers for the Charity Commission ask people how many times they have received a service from a charity in the recent past, they give a quite low figure, but when a list of actual charities is put before them, that figure leaps to a far higher one. That is just one indicator of the knowledge gap, which is freely admitted by the Commission’s researchers, but which the Commission’s leadership seems reluctant to acknowledge publicly.

They have been making too many generalisations about what “the public” expect of “charities” in general, without the necessary caveats and qualifications. According to the Chair it isn’t the job of the Commission – even, apparently, if it would help public trust and confidence in charities – to dispel public misconceptions or myths as to what “charities” are and what they are like. Indeed, the Chair has at times appeared to deny that such myths and misconceptions exist – notwithstanding the Commission’s own research. In her world, every criticism by a sample of the public of the tiny, distorted sample of charities known to most of them, represents a direct and compelling challenge to charities in general to change their behaviour. Even charities themselves should, she implies, stop trying to explain the realities of their lives better and change their ethos and behaviour instead.  If such statements are supposed to be shaped by the Commission’s research into public opinion,  it is in my view a one-eyed reading of the research, ignoring its inherent limitations and  loading onto it oversimplified generalisations about our vast sector that the research will not properly bear. The same is true of the over-heated suggestion that “the writing is on the wall” for registered charities (in general, apparently) unless they change their ethos and behaviour.

When such objectionss are made, it is facile to accuse charity insiders of evading inconvenient truths, as the Chief Executive has done. Stubborn evidence of the limited knowledge and misconceptions of many of the public is indeed an inconvenient truth for the Commission’s leadership on its current rhetorical trajectory.

I am not one of those who deny any useful role for research into public attitudes, especially for a body whose duties include promoting public confidence and trust in charities. There are insights from the Populus research which, carefully handled and merged with the Commission’s wide experience and knowledge, with data on giving and volunteering, with common sense and, crucially, the requirements of charity law and public benefit, can reinforce a strategy to enhance long term public trust and confidence in charities.

I have no significant criticism of most of the research itself, but its limitations need to be scrupulously acknowledged. Otherwise, a rickety rhetorical superstructure can distract from the sound elements of the base, and, more importantly, from the vitally important work that the Commission actually accomplishes for the public good day in, day out.


If you want to make statements about “charities” stick to what they have in common

The Charity Commission claims that its recent Statement of Strategic Intent represents the very first time the Commission has acknowledged that regulation is not an end in itself. 

I do not, however, recall any previous Board saying or implying: “We must pursue regulation for regulation’s sake!” On the contrary, the strategic aim has long been to promote public trust and confidence in charities because Parliament has decided that specified causes are charitable and for the public benefit. That is not regulation for regulation’s sake, but for the sake of benefitting the public.

For example, after 2006 the Charity Commission spent a lot of time and effort trying to “help maximise the benefit that charity [I think she means charities] provide[s] in our society”, as the current Chief Executive puts it, by providing, as instructed by Parliament, comprehensive guidance on how charities can and must benefit the public, what that really means, and how they should define, assess and report on the benefits they offer in a manner consistent with charity case law. The overall guidance has the merit of being common to all charities, in all their diversity, and it was supplemented by more detailed guidance for key sectors including education and religion. I can assure the current Commission that we were doing this, not as regulation as an end in itself, but for the public benefit – and for the sake of strengthening the long term bargain between charities and the rest of society.

By contrast, the Charity Commission’s new Statement of Strategic Intent, and surrounding speeches and articles by its Chair and Chief Executive, give central place not to public benefit or charity law, but to the need for charities (in general, apparently) to change their culture and behaviour in order to exhibit charitable ethos and attitudes such as “the public” expect. I argued in a recent blog that this prospectus is marred by vagueness:

Let us now look at what actual examples of “charitable attitudes and ethos” the Chair or Chief Executive have given: their best efforts to explain what they actually mean. They are finding it difficult to generalise.

They correctly say that important lessons must be learned from the minority of charities responsible for bad fundraising practices and from inadequate approaches to safeguarding. That does indeed require culture change (among other things), with more consistent respect for donors as human beings, and better safeguarding policies and Codes of Conduct that are taken seriously at every level, now that the consequences of unequal power relationships and patriarchy are understood better within and beyond the workplace. I gladly pay tribute to the part played by the Fundraising Regulator and Charity Commission respectively in assisting such changes. OK, but what else?

After that, the examples offered by the Chair have run into heavy flak. Charities, we are told, should not prioritise their own organisational growth above the long term interests of their beneficiaries. Agreed, they should not prioritise anything at all above those interests, but it is far from simple to judge in any particular case whether the beneficiaries gain more from the growth of a good charity than they would if that charity chose not to grow. The Charity Commission is not the right body to make that judgement.  The Chair cites one charity that decided not to tender for a commissioning contract because other charities might be damaged and beneficiaries might suffer in the long run. Great – but that might be the right decision for beneficiaries  in one case, the wrong one in another. It is not a general example of the behaviour that people expect from charities.  Indeed, giving smaller charities a better chance in commissioning processes is mainly about changing the processes, not charitable ethos. Perhaps charities should also be less like businesses, she suggests, but this is another vague generalisation when charities are so diverse and some of them definitely need to be more business-like, learning from the commercial world and applying relevant insights to their own distinctive purposes. (Thanks to sundry Twitterati who have made these points).

In short, when it comes to explaining what they mean by their strong emphasis on changing culture and behaviour in favour of charitable attitudes, charitable ethos and charitable behaviour,  the cupboard is so far strikingly bare. In a future blog I shall suggest that the Commission’s focus group research does little to help stock the cupboard.

The Commission’s key problem here is that it is genuinely difficult to generalise accurately about 168,000 totally diverse charities. That enormous sector might say with Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”. The Charity Commission knows more about that diversity than any other body.

It is nevertheless possible to make generalisations about them if they are based on charity law and public benefit, because charitable status and charity law is common to them all, and them alone. It is possible to make generalisations about their independence, because by definition they must all be independent, and about the salience of volunteer effort (including volunteer Trustees) and money freely given by donors, since those are distinctive characteristics of the vast majority of charities even if shared with other voluntary organisations, too. Those things are common to the entire diverse crowd.  It is, however, perilously difficult, if not impossible, to make useful generalisations about their behaviour, attitudes and ethos because you are comparing most charities that have no staff with the minority that do, a football club with the Royal Albert Hall, local mosques with The British Council, a posh fee-paying school with a self help group for Somali immigrants, the Wellcome Trust with a hedgehog preservation society. Trying to find ethical principles to suit all that lot leads to a very high level of “apple pie” generality with limited purchase on real decisions in real life. This is why the NCVO has experienced major difficulties trying to come up  with a Code or Statement of Ethics for Charities (see my blog Doubts About the NCVO’s draft Code of Ethics) : the Charity Commission is not alone in its struggles.

The vagueness of the Commission’s Statement of Strategic Intent and accompanying communications seems to be the result of, apparently, sailing away from a primary emphasis on the things that define all charities, and therefore from the Commission’s heartland of authority and expertise. As they head into the mists of “charity” (instead of “charities”), ethics, attitudes, culture, and behaviour, the clarity of the Regulator’s messaging tends to dissolve as the visibility deteriorates.

The Charity Commission’s job relates to charities, not charity.

The Charity Commission’s recent Statement of Strategic Intent, and surrounding speeches by its Chair Baroness Stowell and a recent article by Chief Executive Helen Stephenson (“Public Attitudes to charity – and why they matter” – Civil Society News 5 November 2018) are marred by vagueness tinged with moralism.

There are good things about the Statement. It has a positive vision and ambition for a thriving sector. The oversimplified emphasis of the Shawcross years on the “policeman” role of the Commission has been jettisoned. Prevention, and proactive partnership to improve standards, are back. And the strategy itself is yet to come, so there is plenty of scope for clarification. In principle, an element of honest challenge to the sector is welcome. For now, however, these positive intentions are partly lost in the mist.

Take the key Statement of Purpose: “The Charity Commission ensures charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society”. Charity with a small c, however, is the quality of kindness and benevolence, tolerance in judging others, and love of ones fellow human beings. It is not the job of the Charity Commission to be custodians of that quality in society. Charity with a small c manifests itself in all sectors of society, not least in our public services, and in countless every day interactions between people which have nothing to do with being a registered charity. The Charity Commission’s job relates to charities, not charity.

This is not just a one-off piece of imprecise drafting: the thinking itself is imprecise. A key message of the Statement is that it is no longer enough to achieve a “worthy”  purpose, by which they mean a charitable purpose as defined by Parliament and interpreted by the courts. “A charity must also be a living example of charitable attitudes and charitable behaviour,” says the Statement. “Charities must change their culture and behaviour”, the Chair tells us (speech at RSA, 5 October 2018). Note that this was not framed as a minority of charities, or some charities: it’s charities in general. “People” feel, she adds, that the promise of charity has not always been kept….charities are not always motivated by the same sense of decency, concern and selflessness which drives them when they donate.” All charities, in a nutshell, must abide by “the attitude, the ethos the public expect”.

The problem with these and other similar formulations is that:

  • what constitutes “charitable behaviour”, “charitable attitudes and ethos” is vague
  • what “people”, “the people” or “the public” know about charities and expect is also vague
  • generalisations about charities are vague.

For example, what does the Commission actually mean by “charitable attitudes” and “charitable behaviour”, concepts which are commonly used in relation to individuals? We all understand what “generous” and “caring” individuals are, but even for individuals some concepts cited by the Chair are imprecise or even wrong. We could argue for some time over what “a sense of decency” is. It doesn’t make for clear guidance. And “selflessness” is more problematic. If you love your neighbour as yourself, you are not being selfless. You are not loving your neighbour instead of yourself. Successful volunteering, for example, involves a strong element of reciprocity: the person or organisation being assisted benefits, but so does the volunteer. People fulfil themselves and achieve satisfaction for themselves in loving interactions with their fellow human beings.

Hence, motives for giving money to charity may also be complex: a sense of being judged by your peers (or, if you believe in God, by God), a sense of guilt, a sense of social status, a sense of satisfaction at making a difference, a warm glow from the gratitude of the recipient, your name on the back of a chair, a sense that you yourself might be next in line needing help: all these may be part of the mix, which is not properly described as selflessness. As one of the Commission’s Manchester focus groups correctly put it, “I think it makes  people feel good as well if they’re contributing in some way.”

All right, I admit that Thought for the Day is not my forte, but I do doubt if it is Baroness Stowell’s either – or her job as Chair of the Charity Commission.

This is tricky territory for Bishops, let alone Charity Commission Board members. As Bishop Geoffrey Paul once said: “There is no way of belonging to Jesus Christ except by belonging gladly and irrevocably to the glorious ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the One Holy Catholic Church”. The wider charity sector of which the Church is part is much the same. Ever since Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens and later C.P. Snow,  charities of all shapes and sizes have had a decent share of egotistical Founders, great campaigners who are personal bullies, self-righteous prigs, people who confuse themselves with the cause, zealots with tunnel vision, people who take a most uncharitable view of others who disagree with them, in short, a glorious ragbag of saints and fatheads. Don’t expect that to change too much so long as people remain human with feet of clay.

If “charitable attitudes and behaviour” are not so easy to pin down or change for individuals, they are more difficult still to define for whole organisations. What does it mean for, say, the Ramblers Association (chosen totally at random), to be as an organisation generous, caring or tolerant in judging others (common meanings of the word “charitable”), including landowners who block footpaths? I love the Ramblers but I really don’t know. The Charity Commission is struggling to define what they mean when they say that charities (in general) have to change their culture and behaviour to be more charitable. In my next blog I shall look at the examples they have so far given and the focus group research to back them up. Spoiler alert: those efforts are not going very far yet in penetrating the mist.

There was a Charity Commission Legal Board Member who used to go around in the 1980s saying (of supposedly unacceptable political activity by charities): “It is like the elephant: difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it” – which did not strike us at the time as very useful guidance. As the Commission’s new strategy is developed, let us hope for more rigour and clarity.


How Are Leading Charities to “Give People Power”?

Is it right to expect leading civil society organisations to do more to empower local communities, combat alienation and model participatory democracy as an antidote?

This was the challenge, as I understood it, laid down by Julia Unwin, Chair of Civil Society Futures, in her Civil Society News “Voices” article of 14 August. Julia was concerned to address the gross centralisation of decision making in our system of Government (hear, hear!), but also challenged leading civil society organisations, if they wish to rejuvenate their jaded sector, to show Government how a more empowering and participative approach should be done. She clearly implied that they were not doing this well enough at present, and “almost all” of them were “almost” completely absent from the communities consulted by the Civil Society Futures programme.

My immediate reaction was “Yay!!” This was not just because I have great respect for Julia and the Civil Society Futures initiative, but also because this is the emotional heartbeat and theory of change of the international development charity of which I am a proud International Board member, ActionAid International. We believe in empowering communities to assert their rights and challenge unequal power relationships of all kinds, including gender relations, discrimination against caste or ethnic groups, and unaccountable power elites in government or Corporations. We believe in people power. The typical ActionAid posture is sitting in a circle on the ground with people from social movements of the poor or oppressed, listening to them and facilitating them to discover in themselves the seeds of people power, and then to define and assert their priority demands. This empowerment, rooted in local communities, is then reinforced by helping them to link with other similar groups in the district, region, nationally and internationally, to influence the decisions at those levels that affect their life chances. Women’s rights are absolutely key to all this. We believe that in the long run we cannot eliminate poverty and social injustice without challenging malevolent power structures.

After that initial warm gush of affirmation, however, I have found myself trying to think harder about Julia’s challenge, and trying to make some distinctions.

For leading civil society organisations differ widely. Some are centralised monoliths, but many are not. Take the religious ones. What about the Church of England? Whatever its weaknesses, it is present in every parish, it has hundeds of thousands of active adherents and is in so many places a nursery of participation, volunteering  and community. The governance is a mixture, but local churches are independent charities and elect their PCC (the Trustees) and there are Synods at deanery, Diocesan and national level to determine policy, with extensive powers for elected clergy and laity. I don’t understand how this leading organisation fits into Julia’s picture of absentee charities failing to impinge on local alienation. This is only one example. There are of course many other Christian denominations, some more democratic, some less, plus all the other faith communities. Love them or loathe them, they offer participation, a sense of agency, relief from loneliness or neglect, and facilities where community bonds can be formed; and many decisions affecting them are typically taken locally.

The broader point is that many charities with a leading national profile have local branches, which may be local charities in their own right as well as part of a national network. Of the secular variety, think of Women’s Institutes, Age Concern, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, The Ramblers’ Association, Girlguiding and The Scouts, MIND, MENCAP and so forth. Were they and their religious counterparts really all “almost completely absent”? Or were they present but not relevant enough to combatting alienation? Do their users and members continue to feel  as alienated as before, or is it those whom they don’t reach? Again, some of these organisations (such as the Ramblers) are highly democratic in their governance structures, others less so. So what is it exactly that they are being challenged to be or do – Be more present in more places? Be more democratic or participative in their own internal structures? Be more consultative in the way they consult actual or potential users and beneficiaries in making decisions about their priorities? We need clarity as to what the challenge is, and to whom.

Bear in mind, too, that “communities” are not only geographical. There  are also communities of interest, communities of shared enthusiasm, communities of special need, communities of belief, and the reason for existence for many charities is to serve these. I do not know to what extent Civil Society Futures intend to consult these communities, as well as geographical ones, or whether the findings would be any different. The fact is, however, that it isn’t the purpose of many kinds of charity to mitigate the alienation of geographical communities or promote democracy. It might be to engage in medical research, or protect the heritage, or assist sufferers from a specific disease and their families, or a thousand other causes. The Trustees of those charities should surely be considering a more participative and democratic methodology only in so far as their theory of change suggests that this will be the very best way of securing their charitable objectives? For some it really might. For others, perhaps not.

Similarly, feelings of alienation, powerlessness and lack of control also have varied causes and components. Julia’s article does not mention that women in particular tend to feel alienation and powerlessness as a result of patriarchy in our society. That brings a whole series of crucial challenges for the sector, (and wider society) that are not about being more consultative or participatory in a general sense; they are more specifically about rooting out entrenched cultural biases and embracing policies to promote women’s rights, safety, confidence, participation and expectations.

To take a quite different example, there are few things more likely to induce a sense of powerlessness than the awareness that our whole planet may be going down the celestial toilet as a result of global warming. Two of our leading civil society organisations in the environmental field try to address this in different ways. Friends of the Earth is structured around local groups and a democratic governance, feeding into an important national and international presence. Greenpeace takes on the unaccountable global Goliaths of environmental destruction through much more centralised decision making, galvanising support and awareness through mighty media campaigns. Either organisation can give us supporters the feeling that at least we can do something to help. So what is Civil Society Futures now challenging them to differently, and why? Is the same challenge equally valid for two organisations with such different USPs and structures?

At another level, if I am a sufferer from a disability or chronic disease, the greatest contribution to my sense of being in control might be from the charity that links me to other sufferers and their experience of managing, and to specialist online resources, aids to daily living or more appropriate housing. If I am a cancer patient, my number one requirement to feel more in control of my destiny may be, simply, to have the cancer cured or knocked back, (perhaps as a result of research funded by Cancer Research UK, one of the leading bodies named by Julia Unwin) or, if not, to be helped to manage. If I am a care leaver who feels nobody gives a damn about me, the charity that can give me back a sense of hope, worth, agency and control may be a children’s charity that assigns a key worker to me for the long term, valuing me and believing in me for the first time in my life…..

….ie, a charity like Barnardos! – another of those implicitly flawed leaders named by Julia Unwin in her phrase “From RSPB to Barnardos, from Cancer Research UK to the Red Cross”. It isn’t Barnardos’ charitable purpose to empower local communities, or promote democracy and participation for all, but to empower and nurture the most vulnerable and alienated children and young people: as they say on their website “We listen to them. We believe in them – no matter who they are, what they have done or what they have been through.” They reach 248,000 children, young people and carers in a year, and deploy over 20,000 volunteers. Quite a bit of additional agency generated there? Barnardos also research and campaign hard to create a better life for children in the future, drawing on all the listening they have done. So what exactly are we challenging Barnardos to do? Re-examine their theory of change in case they could achieve more for children by a more democratic structure of internal decision-making? or by more diverse methods of consultation at a local level, going beyond the stakeholders currently consulted, before a new project or commissioning bid is launched? or even, more radically, adding to their Constitution a new charitable purpose of community development? Barnardos have broad enough shoulders to endure a friendly challenge from Civil Society Futures, but they would need to know what the challenge actually is.

Now consider the RSPB, whose purpose is not to empower local communities but to protect and nurture birds and nature. To this end, in the UK (I am ignoring here their formidable international role) they mobilise nearly 19,000 volunteers in a year, they have 155 community-based local groups and more than 300 youth groups. They empower untold numbers of children and grown ups to pursue and deepen a love and understanding of nature – through using their resources, bird watching, participating in research, pond dipping, rock pooling, and instructive walks in their 170 nature reserves. They have over a million members, who elect their President, nominate and elect members of Council and can demand a ballot on certain resolutions put to Council, so their governance is quite different from (say) Barnardos. What else are we challenging them to do if they are to play a bigger role in reducing local communities’ sense of alienation, in a way which also actually advances their charitable purpose?

I realise that Julia’s article is only a brief taster, partly designed to provoke. So we must look forward to more expansive, detailed explanations of the challenges emerging from the Civil Society Futures initiative. The generalised challenge to leading voluntary organisations raises a lot of questions because they are so different from each other in terms of their local presence, their purposes, their USPs and their systems of internal governance and external operation. Concepts of alienation, powerlessness and lack of control will also need breaking down into different components.

Every one of our leading civil society organisations has weaknesses and needs to review, evaluate and refresh itself, asking searching questions, at regular intervals. The ones I know already do this. Can Civil Society Futures refine the nature of the challenge to help them do it better? Reading their impact statements,  supporting and participating in some, and observing them over some decades now discloses, in my opinion, for all their faults, an impressive and precious contribution to our common life and, indeed, to a more vivid sense of agency and control in important dimensions for many people. So, in the enthusiasm for transformation, let us, please, also be careful what we wish for.





Why Charging Charities is not the answer to the Charity Commission’s strapped budget

Here is an open letter I have written to the Chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Tina Stowell, on behalf of the Directory of Social Change, of which I am lucky enough to be a Trustee. The letter sets out why none of the available methods of charging charities for their own regulation is without huge problems. The DSC questions whether it can be a good use of time and energy to debate improbable charging options, which detract from the urgent need to make the Commission’s strong case to Government and Parliament.

25 July 2018

Dear Baroness Stowell,

Charging Charities

I write to you as a Trustee of the Directory of Social Change (DSC).  As I am sure you are aware, DSC is a long-standing and engaged supporter of the Charity Commission and its critical role for the sector and the public.

We understand you are wisely taking some time to get a handle on the complex issues around charging charities in some way, to pay for some of the work of the Charity Commission (“the Commission”). Helen Stephenson has repeated recently that she wants to have that conversation with the sector, so we assume that the subject remains live. I have been asked to express the charity’s reservations about this.

DSC has consistently argued that it has been a short-sighted, counter-productive policy to slash the Commission’s budget in recent years. We also strongly espouse the importance of a genuinely independent regulator – independent of the Government of the day, and independent of the sector, championing the long-term public interest in a healthy charity sector without fear or favour. We know how important it is to secure not just more funds, but more predictable funds, for the Commission.

Until your arrival, the leading policy idea for consultation was said to be a levy on larger charities to raise about £7 million per year, but we assume other models of charging may also be on the table.

DSC is opposed to the idea of charging charities for regulation, or indeed any other services provided by the Commission to the sector. Of course, we understand the extreme pressures the Commission is under, not least that the budget is dependent on regular public expenditure negotiations with a Government Department and HM Treasury.

However, we do not believe that removing the burden from the Exchequer and putting it more onto charities (and by proxy, on charitable donors) is the best course of action or the right one in principle.

So far, the options around charging can be broadly divided into three types, which we examine in turn. First, charging all or most kinds of charities some form of levy, eg on a sliding scale; second, charging this only to some (probably larger) charities; and third, charging for particular services or based on processes (i.e. submitting reports and accounts, or registration). There are advantages and disadvantages with each approach.

Charging all or most charities a levy

This approach is the only one that could yield most of the Commission’s budget. So it could substantially improve the quantum and predictability of funding and largely eliminate financial dependence on the Government of the day. If done on a sliding scale, it could be roughly proportionate and more affordable for smaller organisations. However, there would also be significant downsides:


  • There would be a perception of dependence on the sector, which could undermine the status of the Commission as acting independently of charities in the public interest. If charities pay the piper, how many people will trust the piper to call the tune independently in the longer run?


  • The mechanisms of collecting and chasing fees, and bringing defaulters to book, and deciding what to do about charities that have more than one regulator, constitute a formidable administrative nightmare – which might be disproportionate to the revenue raised.


  • It would be a massive change in the bargain that, with all party support in Parliament for many decades, has governed the relationship between charities and the wider public (including donors and volunteers).


  • It is a duty of Trustees to ensure that the charitable funds entrusted to them should be spent in the best possible way to support their charitable objects – not the Charity Commission’s regulatory mission. People give not to charity in general but to particular charitable causes.


  1. Charging only some (likely larger) charities a levy

The advantages of this approach would be that it might reduce potential opposition from a majority of the sector, which is comprised predominantly of small and micro charities, many if not most of which would very likely be unable or unwilling to pay a levy. The burden would fall on those with the greatest income. However, this too has significant disadvantages, namely:

  • It would be arbitrary and unfair that donors to larger charities would wind up subsidising the regulation for everyone else. Plus, where would the dividing line be set, and who would decide whether and why this was just or fair? If the levy is a flat rate, why should larger charities with widely different incomes pay the same amount while others pay nothing at all?


  • It does not deal with the problem of dependence on Government for most of the Commission’s budget.


  • If only larger charities must pay a levy, paying as it were for the privilege of being a charity whose reputation benefits from regulation, and effectively subsidising the good regulation of smaller charities, those charities could reasonably expect a bigger say in the Commission’s strategic priorities, or governance. This could threaten the perception, and reality, of the regulator’s independence.


  • Even a limited levy on the larger charities would be the thin end of the wedge, leading to progressive atrophy of public expenditure on charity regulation. Once the principle is accepted that charities should pay towards their regulation, the walls are breached. Why not then, in a couple of years, a bit more? Then more again? “Assurances” to the contrary would be inherently unreliable in the long run.


  • The Commission has previously mooted the argument that a levy could pay for the “softer” part of the Commission’s role, whereas public expenditure should pay for investigation and compliance. This is a flawed narrative – that the “real” or “essential” work of the Commission is to be a policeman whereas positive, preventive work to make compliance work less necessary is a soft luxury. DSC maintains that good regulation integrates preventive, positive and reactive work as an interrelated whole. We are really pleased to note that you and Helen now seem to be leading in this spirit.


  1. Charging for specific services or regulatory processes


This option has theoretical advantages over a levy. Trustees and donors might have fewer objections in principle to paying for a service relevant to their own cause and charity than for services which benefit other unrelated charities and causes. Those who need the service would pay for it. However, even with this there remain big problems, because:


  • There are problems of principle. The charity sector is accustomed to a bargain with society where services from the Commission are available free at the point of need. Similarly, trustees are volunteers who do not derive personal profit from the charity’s work. Changing that bargain is no small thing.



  • This option does not deal with continuing dependence on Government for most of the Commission’s funding.


  • There could be undesirable deterrent effects. If I have to pay for such and such a product or service, perhaps I think can do without – when actually I do need it? This could drive poorer compliance from those charities that need it most. Enabling regulation could well be unintentionally weakened.


  • There could be perceived injustice where charities that are as good as gold must pay for certain services whereas charities that behave badly and cause damage to the sector wind up paying nothing towards the untold hours of Commission work that they cause.


  • Similarly to the sliding scale levy options, designing and enforcing the system of services and payments would introduce major administration and transaction costs. How would a fair distinction be made between what is to be paid for by a charity and what can be funded from the public purse because Parliament wishes to encourage a healthy charity sector?


So, all of these options come with serious downsides.


  1. Further points to consider around introducing a levy or charges


  • Most if not all these options would require legislation, which would be highly contentious. Is it worth fighting this battle outside and inside Parliament, even if space could ever be found in the legislative programme? Given the major difficulties, how likely is it that a “conversation” will be productive?


  • We are not starting from a blank sheet of paper. We are starting with a bargain stretching back into the nineteenth century where the regulation of charities is beneficial to society and a proper call on the public purse. Diverting time and energy into debating levies or charges simply weakens the case to be made in Parliament and Government for proper recognition of the importance of the Commission’s role, via Exchequer spending.


  • We know that many regulated bodies in other spheres pay towards their regulation – but rather than using this as an argument for introducing charges, the Charity Commission should instead explain why the charity sector is distinct. It does not operate for profit and is to a large degree supported by public donations. It is long established policy to encourage volunteering and donations to advance charitable causes for the good of society. It would strengthen your case for funding from the Exchequer if you reiterated this important distinctive point about the charity sector both within government and publicly – and you can be assured of DSC’s vocal support in this.



  • Please do not put too much weight on the recent finding of your report on public trust, to the effect that most donors would not mind a fraction of their donation going to the Commission. It all depends on the question you ask. What response do you think you would have got to this question: “Would you be happy for a small part of your donation to your favourite cause to pay for regulation by the Charity Commission, which previously has always been paid for in full by the Government?”


  1. What we should be debating instead of the various options around charging charities

In conclusion, we believe this whole issue needs to be rethought from fundamental principles. Namely, how can we achieve a sufficient level of predictable funding to support the Charity Commission’s vital work, in a way that enhances rather than risks its independence, and which is fair to charities (and their distinctive role in society) and the donating public? Unfortunately, none of the options presented above provide a good answer to that question.

The answer, in our view, must involve considering how the Commission’s budget is debated and decided within government, and Parliament’s participation in the process, rather than what kind of charges we should or shouldn’t have.

The Charity Commission is not accountable to a Minister or a government department but to Parliament, for very good reasons. It must of course account for spending public money, but its remit and regulatory priorities shouldn’t effectively be set by the Government of the day or cramped via insufficient spending settlements. We should explore ways of giving Parliament more of a binding say in how the budget is set – for example by giving a Committee the power to propose or veto the Commission’s spending settlement. In the meantime, the focus on building the case for more satisfactory Exchequer funding should be maintained, rather than dissipated in debating improbable alternatives involving charging or levies.

Thank you for considering these points as you ponder the best way forward. As always, DSC is transparent in its contributions to public debate, and we will publish our letter and any response from you on our website – in good faith and in the spirit of openness.

Yours sincerely,


Andrew Purkis

DSC Trustee