The new Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Baroness Tina Stowell, made her first major speech to the NCVO Conference on 16 April. I find it the most interesting and thought-provoking speech made by a Chair of the Charity Commission for some years (though that is not a high bar). She also emphasised that she knows she has much to learn and is anxious to listen. Here are my suggestions of what she may want to listen and learn about particularly carefully as her thinking develops.
The speech contains some excellent passages. Here are my three favourite nuggets:
- “So why do people really want more transparency from charities? In my view, their demand for information is a proxy for something far more profound. They want proof that you are who you say you are.” This is original and insightful.
- “The public want to be able to trust that, no matter how you slice a charity, what you’ll find is a relentless focus on its charitable purpose. And that means demonstrating that the way charities prioritise, behave and conduct themselves is focussed solely on delivering the right results for the people they say they support.” Hear, hear.
- [The Commission needs to] “help make sure charities get it right before things can go wrong. And, make sure they are better equipped to respond in a way that promotes public trust when, sadly, human or systems failings do occur”. This is a relief and pleasure to read, replacing the flawed narrative that the Commission’s “essential” role is to be a policeman.
A second category of passages in the speech is similarly thought-provoking but does not stand up quite so well to careful consideration. For example, Stowell argues that people are less trusting of institutions and of those in positions of authority than they once were “not because our parents and gransparents were more naive [but] because people now have more evidence to prove their suspicions”. An interesting proposition, but a bit shaky. Actually, in some respects I am sure my parents and grandparents were naive, especially on many matters to do with sex and patriarchy. And much of the changes in attitudes are to do with cultural and economic winds of change rather than “evidence”. This matters, since Stowell wants to frame the mission of the Commission in terms of responding to the decline in trust, which therefore should explained with due care.
At another point, Stowell tries to contrast a supermarket, that can keep selling its wares even if its leaders are seen to fail, with charities, that have only their purpose. In fact, however, many charities can and do carry on when their leaders fail in some respect, because their services and other offerings for the benefit of the public continue in much the same way as a supermarket’s. Churches carry on. Universities paying Vice Chancellors gigantic salaries carry on. Oxfam and Save The Children and RNIB will carry on. Their continuing reasons for existence are entirely clear.
We now move into a third category of parts of the speech where to my mind red lights begin to flash. In another doubtful generalisation, she says of failing institutions where people believe their leaders are running them in their own interests: “those institutions have lost sight of their purpose: their purpose which goes beyond money-making or gaining power”. Unfortunately, it is ambiguous as to exactly which institutions she is talking about, but if she were understood to be referring to charities hit by recent scandals she would be preempting the Commission’s own inquiries and quite probably saying something unfair and untrue.
“At its heart,” Stowell argues, “charity is about attitudes, behaviours and qualities that unite us and that we can all sign up to. Qualities such as purpose, conviction, selflessness, generosity”. The problem with this formulation is that although it might just be true at a theoretical and philosophical level, charity as practised by charities only sometimes brings people together, as in a corporation’s “charity day” bringing the workforce together in support of benign charities that everyone supports. In many other cases they can be contentious and divisive, because many charities want to change the world and many other people, other charities and vested interests do not like it. One of the underpinnings of the erroneous notion that campaigning is against the spirit of charity is the quite popular belief that charity should be uncontentious. But in fact, much of the advancement of religion is contentious, the promotion and defence of human rights is contentious, the protection of the environment is contentious, the welfare of animals is contentious, the abolition of slavery was contentious, the assertion of women’s rights and children’s rights is contentious, and so on. Many charitable causes do not unite people, nor should they. Perhaps Baroness Stowell did not intend to say that the pursuit of charitable causes unites people, but the fact is that charity as practised in the real world is about attitudes, behaviours and qualities that often form part of the contention and lively argument that enriches democratic society. It is to be hoped that she will champion this part of charities’ contribution to our society more consistently than her predecessor.
Gareth Jones has already questioned, in Civil Society News, Stowell’s dictum that “the Commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you”. Interesting and thought provoking again! The task of promoting the trust and confidence of the public in charities, and upholding the public interest in charity, cannot, however, be a one way effort of policing, cajoling and helping the charity sector, vital as that is. There should in my opinion also be a dimension of making authoritative contributions to public understanding and debate, from a position of expertise independent of the sector itself and independent of party politics, about the nature and significance of charitable endeavour, why it is in the public interest and how best its contribution may be safeguarded, all informed by the long, historic development of charity law in the Courts and in Parliament. The views of the public are not just a given to be explained to the sector by the Commission. They are a changing, fluid mass of complex feelings and opinions that can be shaped, better informed and educated, not least as part of the Commission’s role.
And, as Gareth Jones pointed out in Civil Society News, if the Commission’s leaders spend too much time and colourful phraseology bemoaning the failings and slumping reputation of the sector, they can run the risk of adding to the damage. To be fair, Stowell has plenty of positive things to say, too, but Gareth’s warning is a fair one.
Stowell is also in potentially treacherous territory basing her framing of the Commission’s mission on research into public trust and confidence. One of the huge difficulties is that most of the sample usually have only the haziest idea of what a charity is, which organisations are charitable and which are not. In the past, the Commission’s research has registered the effects on that part (maybe a third) of the sample that knows least about charities, of the fact that the media has been covering scandals involving charities. Hence, in the wake of the fundraising scandals, research a couple of years’ ago already placed trust in charities on a par with trust in the man or woman in the street, with a partial recovery last year. This research series never showed a time when people generally, as she implies, gave charities the benefit of the doubt; and, in the absence of such evidence, that might be one of those useful straw men. I urge Baroness Stowell to bring all her intellectual rigour to bear on the interpretation and use of this tricky data, not to put too much weight on it, and to take into account other indicators such as the pattern of charitable giving, volunteering, use of charitable services, and support of charitable campaigns, forming a rounded view.
Doing the very best we all can to enhance standards, improve public confidence and above all effectiveness of delivery to beneficiaries does not depend on a movement up or down these imperfect thermometers measuring public trust, nor on countering scandals affecting particular parts of such a varied sector from time to time. The mission is long term and permanent. Good luck to Tina Stowell and the Commission as they take this mission on to the next stage.
Her debut may be a mixed bag, but things are looking up when a speech like this is genuinely interesting, provokes hard thinking and provides at least a few nuggets of gold.