The Charity Commission under Baroness Stowell’s leadership has bought into the populism that decries many of our leading institutions.
The Populist Attack on Institutions
Populists tend to distrust and decry established institutions. They prefer direct appeal to “the people”. Institutions are in their view populated by elites and experts, and live by laws, customs and practices that dissipate the righteous anger of people’s movements by ignoring it or balancing it against other considerations.
In the age of Trump, Johnson and Farage (and counterparts in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Italy etc), we have become familiar with the populist radicalism of the Right. Established institutions have become for them a swamp of compromisers or elitists thwarting the popular will.
In England particularly, this has manifested itself during the Brexit era in populist attacks on experts generally, on the BBC, on Parliament itself (including its illegal proroguing) and respected politicians; on the Civil Service, with vicious attacks on a number of Permanent Secretaries; on established conventions such as the one that requires Ministers caught out in egregious failures or breaches of Ministerial Codes to take responsibility and resign; on the Judiciary (enemies of the people) and the legal profession; on trade unions – and, in some cases, on charities such as Oxfam, The National Trust and others where tribunes of the people detect scandal, wokeness, left wing bias, fat salaries, or other practices that, suitably presented, stoke the anger of those who feel left behind, undervalued and looked down on.
Charity Commission Leadership Joins the Attack
It might at first sight seem unlikely and extreme to associate the Charity Commission for England and Wales with such populist disdain for established institutions. I do not believe that the vast majority of the Commission’s staff hold such views. But in many of its public pronouncements, led by the Chair, Baroness Tina Stowell, who is due to step down next month after one term, the Commission has bought into populist perspectives on established institutions.
For the last three years or so, these pronouncements have placed overwhelming emphasis on the supposed views of “the public” as the cardinal consideration that should be driving charities. The Commission has even occasionally and revealingly slipped into describing itself as “representing” the public. The acute limitations of the public’s understanding even of what charities are – abundantly clear from the Commission’s own research – go unacknowledged, while myths (typically, that the money raised by charities mostly goes on their fat staff salaries) have been described by the Chair as “so-called myths”, with the onus on charities to treat such so-called myths as valid, and change accordingly.
The Chair has also adopted the lazy generalisations of populism about the failure of whole categories of institution. Frequently, she talks of the need for charities – ie charities in general – to change, to behave more as the public would wish, and of the failure to pay regard to the public’s expectations, as if 168,000 charities should be tarred with that same brush.
What do tribunes of the people, from Dominic Cummings and Johnson to the Daily Mail, do to the institutions they distrust? They bully and threaten them – as the judges, the BBC, the Permanent Secretaries, even MPs and Parliament, have all experienced. The Charity Commission has also at times resorted to its own version of intimidation. Hence, the Chair has been fond of prophesying that, as she once put it, “the writing is on the wall” for charities, ie they will perish as a category, abandoned by the people, if they do not respond to what she thinks is the popular will. We are to be scared into change. In addition, individual charities have been used as intimidating examples – the equivalent of heads stuck on pikes outside the city gates in Tudor times. The worst case, in my opinion, was Oxfam, where the Commission’s Chair and Chief Executive rounded off a flawed process of hostile investigation with a number of accusations and damning condemnations that did not correspond to the actual factual findings of the investigation itself. All this in the cause of exemplary justice to assuage popular anger and in support of the Commission’s predetermined messaging. More recently, the Commission has very publicly demanded a detailed explanation from The National Trust as to how its charitable purpose to preserve great houses for the benefit of the whole nation and for their historical interest could possibly justify publishing the facts on how some of those houses were built with the profits of the slave trade – a notable concession to anti-woke populism stoked by right wing newspapers and politicians.
Downplaying Charities’ Core Strengths as Institutions
Beyond this, the Commission’s messaging has downplayed, even by implication disrespected, charities’ distinctive characteristics as organisations. Many smaller charities may not describe themselves as institutions, but particularly long-established and larger charities – the ones most likely to be in the populist firing line – are British institutions with a proud history as change agents. The Chair’s messaging has rarely mentioned this. Charities’ core purpose is to pursue an objective that is charitable in law for the public benefit, but the Commission’s persistent emphasis has been that it is not enough to have a “worthy” purpose, while public benefit is scarcely even mentioned. Another fundamental characteristic of charities is that, unlike other voluntary organisations, they must observe charity law, but the persistent emphasis from the Commission has been that it is not enough to observe the law. Their emphasis is on the alleged need for charities in general to change their behaviour, not on their inherent strengths as institutions. The core characteristic of charities as voluntary organisations is that they are run by volunteer Trustees, for love. Yet what is the effect on the future of trusteeship if the Commission’s Chair constantly goes around disparaging Trustees’ failure to live up to supposed public expectations? What is the effect when they see the shabby way conscientious and able Trustees of Oxfam have been treated? There are major risks indeed when the defining institutional characteristics of charities are treated by the Commission’s Chair as implicitly of secondary importance to an ill-defined view of the behaviour allegedly expected by “the people”.
A further sign of the downplaying of charities’ core characteristics is the habit, inculcated by the current Chair, of referring to “charity” instead of charities. The organisations that the Commission is tasked by Parliament to regulate – registered charities – are frequently “vanished” in her Commission-speak in favour of “charity”, with its vastly wider reach and soft behavioural connotations. What matters in her world is a particular selection of qualities that “the public” like – selflessness, altruism, kindness, compassion, humility (which are to be found far beyond the charity sector) – rather than the purposes, laws, customs, traditions, enthusiasms and wisdom embodied in registered charities as defined by Parliament.
In all these ways, the Charity Commission under Baroness Stowell’s tenure as Chair has not been immune from currents of populist aggression towards established institutions.
Having Confidence in our Core Purpose and Role
Of course, I am not saying that the messaging from the Commission during the Stowell era has all been driven by those currents alone. There are plenty of sound, helpful insights amidst the flawed framing and rhetoric. All institutions including charities have to move with the times, renew themselves and change. Charities must indeed be mindful of the bargain between charities and the public which is so important to both. Yes, purposeful reform must follow fundraising and safeguarding scandals. But we must reject an unrealistic, binary world where our institutions (including charities) must be either perfect, or “failing” and doomed, and where the traditional strengths of institutions are dismissed or downplayed as self-serving, complacent elitism. That is how much of the Stowell era has felt.
Perhaps at least a partial re-set of the Commission’s relations with the sector is underway, to judge by the Chief Executive’s speech to an ICAEW Conference on 21 January? I shall examine that in a separate blog.
As charities, we should have confidence under fire in our core purpose and distinctive institutional strengths, and our right and duty to pursue our charitable mission within the law, for the sake above all of our beneficiaries. We have not been, and will not be, intimidated or panicked by threats that the writing is on the wall, nor even by the odd head on a pike. Charities will remain vital institutions in our national life, refreshing and renewing themselves, long after the populist-inclined disparagement of the Stowell era has been forgotten.