The Chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, has taken to saying that charity campaigners must be “responsible”. This is not a phrase used in the Charity Commission’s guidance on the subject, CC9. The reason is that “being responsible” is an ambiguous concept, unsuitable for clear official advice.
After all, what could be more irresponsible, in the eyes of many respectable citizens in 1780, than taking aim at a pillar of the British economy, the Slave Trade, on which the prosperity of so many individuals and cities depended? What could be more irresponsible than the missionaries proclaiming the human rights of slaves if it incited them to resistance and bloody rebellion?
And how irresponsible was Josephine Butler in her massive campaign to oppose the forced examination of prostitutes to combat infectious diseases, as deemed necessary in the interests of public health and particularly the armed forces?
How irresponsible was it for women’s charities to upset the traditional understanding of gender roles and give women hopeless ideas of equality?
In 1866 the Commons Preservation Society sent a trainload of navvies to Berkhamsted to take down overnight the fencing a local aristocrat had erected to enclose Berkhamsted Common. This could easily be seen as irresponsibly taking the law into their own hands – though they won the subsequent court battle and Berkhamsted Common remains for all to enjoy to this day (see my blog How Charity Campaigning Saved our Commons for all people, for all time, May 2015). And one hardly dares to mention the mass “trespasses” that formed part of the fight for rights of way and public access in the Lake District and the Peak District.
The Jews in England had to fight hard for decades to establish the right to be an effective MP, barred to them until 1858 because of the compulsory Christian oath every MP had to take. Supported by numerous Jewish charities, Lionel Rothschild and David Salomons stood for Parliament, won repeatedly without being able to take part, and in Salomons’ case took the oath omitting key phrases and then insisted on taking part in debates, leading to his ejection, a court case and a massive campaign which secured the rights long denied to the Jews. How “irresponsible” can you get?
Indeed, all these activities were no doubt widely dubbed “irresponsible”. Yet probably most of us today, as others at the time, see them as justifiable, albeit contentious and contested, ways of pursuing what would now be defined as a charitable cause.
The problem is, first, that being “responsible” partly depends on to whom you are responsible. Charities’ principal responsibility is to their beneficiaries, not to respectable society opinion of the day. Or the Daily Mail. Yes, they must be fully aware of their responsibilities under charity law and of the effects of their actions on respectable public opinion, the giving public and “brand charity” – the key point that I assume Shawcross is trying to put across – but he has the habit of speaking as if these are more important than the long term needs of beneficiaries (see my blog “Policing” Charities the Shawcross Way, 8 July 2015). If the charitable campaigners mentioned above had followed this definition of being responsible, the crucial changes they achieved towards a better society would not have happened.
Secondly, my irresponsible, rabble rousing and inappropriate activities are your courageous, effective, responsible methods of promoting your charitable cause. Being responsible as a charity can mean being uncontentious or contentious; in line with majority opinion of the day, or in advance of it; loved by all or hated by many. Cultural, religious and subjective factors play a huge role in our different definitions of what is responsible.
So let us give thanks that this is not a phrase used in CC9. We would all be better off sticking to the principles and language of CC9, which the Commission has recently said it has no plans to revise, rather than the imprecise lexicon on this subject to which Shawcross has been prone.