The Charity Commission’s Christmas Sermon

Christmas is coming, and the Charity Commission’s Chair has delivered an address to a group of women charity leaders that resembles a Christmas sermon (“Charity can and should lead the way in taking people’s expectations seriously”, CC Press Release of 12 December 2019).

Baroness Stowell’s theme is that society is weakened if people feel that their legitimate expectations are ignored by those who are more fortunate. Good point, topical enough in the light of the General Election result. Charity leaders should therefore show the way in demonstrating that they listen and respond to public expectations (she does not mention actually empowering sections of the public, which is what a lot of charities try to do). She thinks she knows what public expectations of charities are, and calls on us all to show how we are changing in order to meet them.

In seasonal vein, this is her version of what “the public” expect of us: “Christmas is a time when we lift our heads above our own individual hopes, worries, ambitions and interests and think about others. That respect, care and compassion for others is a fundamental part of being human….And it’s what charity is all about. Ultimately charities are the vehicles, the bodies. Charity is the spirit that should guide them and emanate from them, whatever their individual purposes and activities….It is that spirit that the public expect to recognise when they look at charities and those leading charities.”

But this is to confuse – deliberately – registered charities with something much more nebulous – the spirit of charity –  which is not confined to registered charities at all. The Charity Commission should get its hands off the spirit of charity which St Paul famously yoked together with faith and hope, and which is these days also translated as “love”. The quality of Christian charity or love (as traditionally understood), kindness and generosity, is displayed in our family lives, our informal interactions with our friends, neighbours and local communities, in many of our public services, and in a host of organisations that are part of civil society and not registered charities. It is therefore a verbal outrage to conflate registered charities with the quality of charity, taking the Commission far beyond its area of legitimacy and authority. By contrast, in its charter, the 2011 Charities  Act: ‘”charity” means an institution which (a) is established for charitable purposes only and (b) falls to be subject to the control of the High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction etc…’ The Commission’s slogan of wanting “charity to thrive” redefines the term used in its charter and imports imprecision and resulting confusion – Stowellism – into the heart of its strategic rhetoric.

A second problem is that, as the Commission’s own research shows very clearly, most of “the public” have no idea of what is a registered charity and what is not, apart from about ten household names. So to build a sermon, and generalisations applied to the whole charity sector,  on what the public expects of charities is fundamentally questionable.

Thirdly, the formula of “respect, care and compassion for others”, undoubtedly most important values for humanity, does not particularly apply to various categories of registered charities which the Commission is supposed to be regulating: we could debate how far it applies to some brands of religion, to animal welfare, the advancement of education and research, the advancement of the arts, culture, science and sport, the protection and improvement of the environment, or the promotion of the efficiency of the armed services of the Crown. Yet these are all charitable purposes as set out by Parliament. Thus, the Chair’s observations on the spirit of charity in some respects exceed her proper area of authority and legitimacy, by venturing into that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, while in other respects excluding important categories of charities as defined in the Charities Act.

Fourthly, the public is not a monolith. Generalisations about this amorphous variety are extremely hazardous. Even the Charities Act distinguishes between accountability to donors, beneficiaries and the general public, in a way Baroness Stowell does not. It is not true that in general “when people come into contact with charities, this is what they are looking and checking for: leaders demonstrating through their actions that they share with them a common understanding of what charity means”. On the contrary, people generally support particular charitable causes, not charity in general.  I attended a Christmas celebration of the CPRE, the Countryside Charity a couple of days’ ago. It filled a large church with members of the public who support the cause. It was all about celebrating the common endeavour, rekindling a passionate commitment to the countryside, hearing what plans and prospects there were, firing a determination to redouble our efforts in the coming year. It was not about some definition of charity. That example can be multiplied countless times.

The Commission’s Foreword to its research on Trust in Charities 2018 (July 2018) said ominously “it is incumbent on us as regulator to represent the public”. That is a mistake. That is not what the Charities Act says. The Commission is a quite small Board of unelected appointees who cannot credibly represent the public. Nor does their useful but modest commissioned research bear anything like the weight that the Commission places on it in claiming to know what “the public” expects, as I hope to demonstrate again shortly.

At least the Archbishop of Canterbury can claim the authority of the Anglican combination of scripture, church tradition and reason, and the status of the Established Church, when he delivers his Christmas sermon. The Chair of the Charity Commission has no similar basis of legitimacy or authority to interpret the meaning of charity with a small “c” or represent the public. It is Parliament who represents the public, and who gave the Commission an Act of Parliament as its charter. Why not stick to it, and to the Commission’s real area of grounded expertise, more closely?






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