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.


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