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.



3 thoughts on “The Charity Commission’s job relates to charities, not charity.

  1. An excellent reflection on the commission’s rather odd strategic direction. The Baroness’s comments remind me of the politicians and leaders who come out with vague statements such as “we all need to be nice to each other”. Such statements don’t change attitudes.


  2. Pingback: If you want to make statements about “charities” stick to what they have in common | andrewpurkis

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