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.



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

  1. Even the Charity Commission don’t seem to know what charities are. Their statement of strategic intent makes broad claims about charity, as you say, but fails to mention exempt charities and (where they exist) their Principal Regulators.

    Since 2010 over 5000 Academy Trusts, almost all exempt charities, have been started in England; they now educate about half the school-age population Nearly all their income comes from the DfE which also acts as their charity regulator. Stories of financial misuse are regular and growing.

    There is still no Principal Regulator for registered social housing providers despite the requirement in the 2006 Charities Act that all exempt charities should either have one or be forced to register with the Commission. I don’t know how many there are but the number is almost certainly growing: as Housing Associations merge and establish joint ventures with for-profit developers, current legal and financial advice is to establish exempt charity subsidiaries for social housing in order to reap the tax benefits while freeing the main body to act commercially.


  2. Thank you Andrew. I found this a very keen read – and important. I do enjoy your posts they are always interesting and fill a huge gap in my knowledge

    And I hear we have to send you congratulations on your recent birthday. What a young man you are Love Kathy


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