Civil Society Futures Inquiry: My suggestions on key themes, do’s and don’ts

 Introduction

  1. I have spent most of my working life in the organised part of civil society, having been Chair of 4 UK Charities and a senior or chief executive of NCVO, CPRE, Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and The Tropical Health and Education Trust. I have been a Board Member of The Charity Commission for England and Wales and a Member of the Parole Board and of its management board. I remain a Trustee of ActionAid International and of the OIA (the Higher Education Ombudsman), advise a grant-giving charitable trust and blog and lecture on charity related subjects.

Definitions and Values

  1. The wider the definition of civil society, the more difficult I believe it will be to say anything useful and interesting about it. I think you should therefore feel robust in selecting, in due course, a few key themes that seem to you really significant and explore them in some depth to make a mark, fully acknowledging that you have not tried to be comprehensive.
  2. I feel sure that you will not adopt the simplistic assumption that all civil society is a Good Thing. One could say that Breitbart and the alt right and tea party organisations are all part of the rich tapestry of civil society, and I assume that the inquiry will define some non-negotiable values and boundaries, and sometimes take sides. If the inquiry is not to be value free or neutral on points of principle, how are the values to be defined? I am sure you will want to go beyond the charity sector, but one advantage is that there are definitions of what objectives Parliament has decided are for the public benefit, so it’s not just anything that anyone feels like doing regardless of benefitting the public as defined by Parliament and the courts. I am not making points about charities, charity regulation and charity law in particular in this evidence as it is not yet clear to what extent such issues will be of interest to the inquiry with its much wider remit. Please consider issuing further guidance in due course on what evidence on those subjects might be useful.
  3. If you are not using the formal definitions of what is charitable and for the public interest, the inquiry will need to articulate its own value base. The Carnegie inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland (2010) led by Geoff Mulgan nailed its values and colours to the mast in a robust way that I commend for your consideration.
  4. Scandinavian comparisons might also be a helpful perspective on our own rhetoric about the inestimable value of civil society. The reason for choosing Scandinavians is that they come out top on many measures of contentment, happiness and relative cohesion, and yet they are not known (so far as I know) for a burgeoning civil society of the kind so enthusiastically promoted in the UK. This might help think through the limits, as well as the potential, of the role of civil society.

History and Futurology

  1. I urge a proportionate balance between distilling some of the key lessons of history, on the one hand, and futurology on the other. Futurology is the graveyard of much energy and effort. There are some trends that are already clear and must be taken into account, for instance the ageing population and demands on health and social care in this country and the very young average population in many developing countries, the threat of global warming, the shrinking of political space for democratic participation in many (but by no means all) countries as documented by CIVICUS, the growth of inequality in key dimensions and the concentration of power and wealth in very few hands in many parts of the world. There are also trends in lifestyle, opportunities and challenges related to the growth of digital technology that are already reasonably clear. I do not know enough about artificial intelligence to know what predictions are speculative and what are probable or certain. There are also some less reliable scenarios related to supposed levels of tax and spend in the future, or further digital change and automation which may be more treacherous territory and may be less fruitful than refreshing the enduring lessons from experience which will apply in shaping and responding to change whichever of the futurologists is proved correct.

Recommended themes for the inquiry

  1. I now give examples of the themes on which I hope the inquiry will decide to focus.
  2. One is the role of civil society in empowering people to have a voice and influence in shaping the world, so that change isn’t just something that happens to them. Julia Unwin is already familiar with a lecture I gave on the history of campaigning for charitable causes, accessible via this link:

 

https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/in-our-good-old-english-fashion-englands-history-of-campaigning-for-charitable-causes-lecture-at-cass-business-school-2-september-2015/

 

  1. I hope that its documented claims for the essential advocacy and campaigning role of charities and other civil society organisations will be perhaps one useful anchorage point for your wide-ranging inquiry. For whatever the changes that time may bring, one of the core functions of civil society is to enable even the humblest and most disadvantaged people to have some agency, a sense of being able to make a difference and being part of something bigger with a purpose. I should be very happy to assist the inquiry with any further thoughts or work in this area (you will find some other case studies and thoughts around the political activity of charities on my website: andrewpurkis.wordpress.com.)
  2. Secondly, within that framework, I hope that the long struggle for women’s rights, led above all since the nineteenth century by parts of civil society, and the continuing need for the purposeful combatting of deeply entrenched patriarchy, will also be a big theme. While some parts of civil society may be strongholds of patriarchy, a more serious problem may be the widespread assumption in many other parts that in broad terms the battle is over and we can all move on to other business. The proposition that feminist ideas and models of leadership have an essential role in further phases of overcoming patriarchal assumptions and cultural behaviours will still frequently elicit bafflement, if not rolling eyeballs, even among those who regard themselves as progressive in such matters, and it would be a great gift if the inquiry illuminates both the history of this civil society struggle and how much further there is to go, offering pointers to help achieve this.
  3. Thirdly, the inquiry has an overview from which it can suggest how different parts of civil society can work together better for particular purposes, overcoming the silos that tend to split them up.
  4. Julia Unwin is already familiar with a study I did on Housing Associations in 2010, showing how the larger housing associations in particular seem to have lost their identity as part of civil society, gathered together in separate “housing” institutions and with only weak links to the wider institutions of civil society.[1]It is interesting to note the current calling out of universities by Andrew Adonis for having “forgotten” that they are supposed to be part of the charity sector, again seeing themselves as a separate HE sector for which being part of civil society is (in his view) no longer a strong part of their identity.
  5. It is good that faith communities are specifically mentioned as part of the inquiry’s call for evidence, and it will be a challenge to ensure that such a major part of civil society is truly integrated in its analysis and judgements. Quite a few organisations that use “Civil Society” or “charity” in their titles tend in practice mostly to exclude religious groups from their working definitions and interests. Religion is seen as different (which of course in some ways it is), with its own institutions and culture, and either embarrassing or divisive in a secular context, with the result that it is frequently side-lined. You would not necessarily guess, reading the literature of some civil society umbrella bodies or attending their meetings, that the advancement of religion accounts for at least one in six charities or that churches, mosques and the like are regulated as charities by the Charity Commission and have vital common interests on issues including freedom to advocate and campaign in line with their mission. Some academics, too, are prone to analyse trends in managerialism in the charity sector, for example, without reference to religious organisations, which in some cases would spoil their conclusions[2]. Will you succeed in convincing the enormous religious sector of civil society that the future of civil society is actually about them as well as secular organisations?
  6. Indeed, one of the recent trends in civil society worth exploring would be the more effective involvement of mostly (not exclusively) religious organisations and congregations in influencing current policy and power structures via Citizen Organising. The Living Wage movement is one of the most conspicuous examples of this. This is something new, crossing the boundaries between “religious” and “secular” in exciting ways, and it would be good if the inquiry were on the lookout for how the sector can innovate partly by finding more ways of getting out of its separate silos.
  7. Inevitably, a fourth theme must be the financial resources available for different kinds of civil society contributions. This in itself is an absolutely vast subject, and I shall pick out just two aspects. A significant trend over the last couple of decades has been the flourishing of many civil society organisations funded mainly by local government in recognition that such organisations can bring authenticity, local participation and empowerment, volunteer effort and, at least up to a point, a pluralism of influences on policy that comes from formal independence from the state. We all know that this model has weaknesses, especially that of excessive dependence on annual grants or contracts from local authorities, but the achievements and merits of this cadre of local voluntary partners of local government are not to be underestimated, and the demise of many such bodies as victims of cuts to local authority budgets and austerity (and in some cases preference given to bigger organisations with lower overheads and bigger capacity for risk) has been a sad loss that should be documented, and is not necessarily irreversible. There are also lessons to be learned by the sector, and by local and central government, which I hope the inquiry will consider summarising.
  8. A second funding issue to highlight relates to the apparently saturated condition of the market for recruiting donors and supporters of UK charities. It has now become so expensive to recruit an extra donor that – particularly now that more aggressive tactics have been called out – it is beyond the means of many organisations to grow in this way. The very big and rich ones can still invest heavily and scoop the pool. If something like this picture is approximately true, it has significant implications for assumptions that growth is good, for diversifying into social enterprise and new funding models, for re-thinking how best to achieve impact, and for independence, of which multiple individual donations is such a crucial condition for many organisations. I believe that the way in which the creation of a large cadre of, not very rich, but comfortably off middle class philanthropists, delegating their interest in particular broad outcomes to expert NGOs via direct debits and the like, is an underestimated, unsung aspect of the period since the 1970s, and I tried to describe them in this piece suggesting that the warm glow of “philanthropy” should not be colonised exclusively by the rich:

 

https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/should-philanthropy-belong-to-the-rich/

 

If this phenomenon has reached its limits, it is worth noting both what it has achieved and what are the best alternative routes for achieving similar goals in future for the significant part of civil society which has benefitted from it.

  1. Do not hesitate to ask if any more material on any aspect would be useful as the focus becomes clearer. Very best of luck.

 

Andrew Purkis,

17 August 2017

 

[1] Housing Associations in England and the Future of Voluntary Organisations, Baring Foundation 2010.

[2] I can give chapter and verse if this is sufficiently interesting.

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Paying for the Regulator: why the charity sector is not like all the others.

Those who favour charging charities for the Charity Commission argue that most other sectors pay for their regulator through charges or fees, even if it is principally the public interest that is served by the regulation of their activity. So why should charities object to the same treatment?

Recent indications from the Charity Commission suggest they intend to consult soon on this issue. I argued  in Civil Society News on 25 July that it is a very bad time for this (because of difficulties in funding the new Fundraising Regulator, the mixed blessings of the Shawcross era, the fact that a new Chief Executive and unknown new Chair of the Commission are about to begin an unknown new era, and the febrile political context of a hung Parliament) but I assume here that it will go ahead anyway. I personally see strong arguments on both sides, but they should be the right arguments.

The truth is that the charity sector is, in significant respects, not like other regulated sectors, and the analogies drawn with others are usually unconvincing.

It is not simply that, historically, Parliament has always accepted the regulation of charities as a proper call on public expenditure. That cultural and political acceptance is indeed significant, shaping expectations in a way that does not apply to many other regulated sectors. No doubt part of the reason for this may derive from the traditional judicial function of the Commission as part of the legal system. But another crucial reason is that Parliament has always wanted to encourage charity for the public benefit for its own sake. Charitable activity, and giving of money and time, has been seen as a Good Thing, to be nurtured and supported for the good of society. That is not special pleading, it is a political fact.

Yes, it is important that (for example) people use water, have access to energy and to media, and take part in business activities, but these regulated activities have not been understood to require encouragement and support in the same way as the relief and prevention of poverty, the advancement of education and religion, the protection of the environment, the promotion of human rights and all the other objectives approved by the Charities Act as being for the public good. That is a major difference. If you impose charges on charities, it is a charge on charity: on donors and on the efforts of Trustees and other volunteers, affecting the motivation that traditionally Parliament has been keen to nurture. It would indeed be a significant alteration in principle of the longstanding bargain between charities and the public.

It is true that bigger charities benefit from fees and contracts, and that a tiny few of them have paid Trustees, but overwhelmingly the charity sector is still run by volunteer Trustees and depends on freely given donations, and is in a different position from publicly funded services or commercial companies that are regulated in other sectors.

In some ways a better analogy for charging charities than the practice of other regulated sectors is the proposition that people should pay for NHS services. Free access to the health service is a political principle, because it is in the public interest that people should be encouraged to go to the doctor when they are unwell and this advances the sort of society that we aspire to be. Even small proposed charges are controversial because they could be the thin end of a wedge undermining the principle. Detached, technocratic arguments about financial “realism” have frequently cut little ice in this context.

So it is with the charity sector and what is likely to be seen, however small at first, as a fresh tax on charity that offends the principles on which the bargain between public and charity sector has been based. That is not a technocratic matter. It is political. There are political arguments for and against charities’ paying for their regulator, but superficial analogies with other regulated sectors are only relevant to the extent that the distinctive nature of the charity sector is kept clearly in view.

Charging Charities for the Charity Commission? Not tonight, Josephine.

The recent research by Populus published by the Charity Commission into public trust and confidence in the Charity Commission raises interesting questions about the Commission’s intention to consult on charging larger charities for aspects of regulation.

In her blog to accompany the research, the Commission’s Sarah Atkinson confirms that this is indeed the plan, alongside continuing discussions with the Treasury about the requirement for public funding.

I see strong arguments on both sides of this debate, which I have previously summarised on one page:

https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/charge-charities-for-the-charity-commission-key-issues-on-one-page/

But the fact is that for many decades it has been accepted by Parliament that it is in the public interest (not just charities’) to have an independent regulator of the sector and that this is a proper claim on public expenditure.  Beware of putting too much weight on comparisons with other sectors where this historical assumption has not been there. The charity sector, unlike the others, is also among other things a missionary and campaigning sector. Suggest  a fresh tax on the advancement of religion (about one sixth of the whole sector) and expect a new generation of Thomas Cranmers, John Bunyans, John Wesleys, William Wilberforces, Cardinal Mannings and their equivalents in other faiths to arise and campaign against it. Suggest a fresh tax on environmental protection and conservation, on cancer care, on work to prevent and manage disabilities, on the arts, on the advancement of health and education……Please believe me, there will be the mother and father of a row. I have pondered  whether the Charity Commission might actually welcome such a row in order to convince the Treasury that they must increase public funding of the Commission, but I am not sure that Shawcross and his Board are that cynical. I think they, like all of us, want a careful, sensible debate.

That is what we shall not get if a consultation is launched any time soon.

In a hung Parliament, how many Ministers or politicians will welcome such a brouhaha or be impervious to impassioned campaigns by angry constituents? It takes a strong Government, at least, to face down many angry charities.

If the Government could find a billion for Northern Ireland and the challenge to austerity is so strong, will go the cry, it is wrong, even absurd, for the Treasury to fuss about a relative bagatelle such as an extra few million for the Charity Commission to regulate such an important and enormous sector.

Moreover, the charging of larger charities to pay for the Fundraising Regulator has not been a smooth ride, despite the far stronger case for charging in the wake of the Olive Cooke and allied fundraising scandals. Many of them have gone along with it reluctantly for strategic reasons to do with the risk of reputational damage. Not a great time to try another charge on them for regulation by the Charity Commission?

The timing in relation to the Commission itself is also all wrong. “Most stakeholders” interviewed by Populus, “(many of whom also rate the Commission positively overall and commend its work) also express concerns that the organisation has at times appeared politically driven and subjective in its treatment of particular high profile incidents”. Hmm. If you were a Trustee of a large charity, would you want to pay for that? Would it not be better to wait for a new Chair and Chief Executive to create a more reassuring climate? If charities look at the outgoing regime, many will have doubts, not least about its destabilising approaches to regulating political activity and the failure to provide an authoritative and independent voice in public debate about charities (as distinct from finger-wagging in response to newspaper headlines). If they look at the forthcoming regime, they also have doubts because they don’t yet know what sort of regime it will be. So why now?

The Commission’s own recent report into trust and confidence points the same way. The doubts of Populus’s charity respondents about whether the Commission has yet restored a good balance between compliance and support, suggest that the time is not ripe for consultation. Stakeholders (a different group) were asked by Populus about charging charities for part of the costs of the Commission’s work. These are relatively detached, sophisticated observers, unlikely to be swept up in emotional reactions to a raid on charitable resources for regulation. Yet only about a quarter were in favour, mainly on the basis that the Commission would have more resources to do its job better. The large majority were split between opposition and doubt:

” Other stakeholders were fairly evenly split between those who were ambivalent and those who were opposed to the proposals. They gave a number of similar reasons.
Some worried that smaller charities would not be able to afford the additional costs. Many who mentioned this assumed – but did not know for certain – that the proposals would include a progressive levy with large charities paying substantially more. Even so, they worried that even small amounts could adversely affect small to medium sized charities who already struggled for income.
Others were strongly concerned that the Commission’s independence would be compromised, and its ability to regulate fairly and impartially would be diminished.
A few argued that they also could not support the proposals because there was no guarantee that the government would not simply reduce state funding as charities paid more.”

This suggests to me that those stakeholders in favour of and against charging both gave insufficient weight to the effects of the current system in subjecting the Commission to pressure from the Government of the day. This is not just because of the appointment system,  which is open to party political influence by Ministers. Remember that twice the Commons Select Committee approved the appointment of William Shawcross as Chair only by splitting on party lines, Conservatives in favour, the rest against: not a great basis for confidence in neutral regulation. It is also because the Commission is dependent on Ministers for their budget, and knows that if it steps out of line with what Ministers want, its budget is at risk of further cuts. In the run up to each public expenditure round, ie most of the time, Ministers have the Commission by the short and curlies.

Some parts of the charity sector and some of the stakeholders in the Populus survey see the matter of independence primarily in terms of the threat that, over time, the Commission might be influenced by the perspectives of the larger charities that would be paying the Commission’s bills. That is a real issue, but it seems wrong to ignore the major potential threat to independence posed by the tight hold of Government over the financial lifeblood of the Commission under the present system. We need much more balanced and careful thinking about that within the sector and beyond. Yet right now, we shall not get it.

The current Chairman has made clear that in his view funding by the sector is the future, and this undermines trust that partial funding by the sector is what is really intended in the long term.  The slippery slope to full charging of the sector is in full view. The argument that sector funding is “necessary” because of continuing Treasury public expenditure constraints invites a vigorous campaigning response to pile political pressure on Ministers to come up with relatively tiny sums of  taxpayers’ money at a time when there is a hung Parliament. I sense that many infuential people in the sector who might in other circumstances be willing to see both sides of the argument (not least about independence from Government) will line up behind the “NO!” campaign.

Better to leave it a while, under a new Charity Commission Chief Executive and a new Chair, settle things down and show that the Shawcross era is well and truly over. Then we are more likely to get a balanced debate. As Napoleon put it to his mistress: “Not tonight, Josephine!”

 

“Trust and Confidence” ? A Reality Check

Whenever I hear a statement about public trust and confidence in charities, or the Charity Commission, like Herman Goering I reach for my revolver.

I argued this time last year that the bewildering ups and downs in poll results on this subject over the years have often had more to do with the dodgy thermometer than the health of the patient.

The research conducted each year by Populus for the Charity Commission, reported by Civil Society News yesterday, is more reliable than most, but still deserves a dose of scepticism. As usual, the Commission’s Sarah Atkinson spoils the fun by making sensible comments on the subject that would be persuasive even if the research had never been done. But let’s take our own detached look anyway.

The main focus this year is public trust and confidence in the Commission rather than in charities, which is potentially more meaningful. But note that of the public sample of about 1000, 39 per cent had never heard of the Charity Commission at all before the conversation with the pollsters. And of the 61 per cent who had, only 32 per cent claimed to know the Commission at least “fairly” well. So 68 per cent of the sample might know the Commission about as well as I know Ofwat or Ofgem. I assure you that my views on how well those two bodies are regulating their sectors are not worth having.

There also appear to be some contradictions in the views of this sample, since public trust in the Commission comes out the same at 6.0, whereas there is a decline in trust in charity regulation and only 47 per cent of the public say that the Commission is an effective regulator. I think what this is telling us is that these opinions probably do not add up to a row of beans. Charities have the advantage of knowing what the Commission is and having some real experience of regulation, and their opinion is more complimentary and much more worth measuring: over three quarters of the charity sample regarded the Commission as effective.

Now let us turn to what the Populus research tells us about public trust and confidence in charities. Up until last year, the level of trust in charities as measured in this series had consistently been somewhere between 6.3 and 6.7. Last year, there was a fall to 5.7 because one third of the sample who tended to know least about the charity sector said their trust had been weakened, mainly because of derogatory media coverage. Now the index has returned to 6.3. Too much was made of the fall last year, and we should not make too much of the return to grace this year. We must remember that many of those being questioned have only the haziest notion of what a charity is, and the notion of the minority who said their trust was weakened last year was hazier than of the majority whose trust was unaffected.

Members of the public who were aware that they had benefitted from the services of a charity during the year was said last year to be 19 per cent, this time 31 per cent. I am suspicious about any claim that there has been a genuine change of awareness of this dimension in such a short time (last year the level of awareness was said to have fallen by a significant percentage). But what was found last time was that, when the same people were presented with a simple list of actual charities, the 19 per cent was transformed to well over 90 per cent: the original figure was telling us, principally, that the sample knew very little about which organisations are charities and which are not. All the findings need to be interpreted with that in mind.

For example, this year’s research is said to show a 13 per cent drop in the number of the public who say they trust charities to work independently, even though trust in charities has gone up from 5.7 to 6.3. I suggest that this finding is virtually meaningless. And be careful when the public finds that charities are less trustworthy than educational institutions, many of which are…charities!

There is a danger that, despite the limitations of surveys into public trust and confidence, we set too much store by them. The stakeholders interviewed by Populus, many of whom are in positions of influence, think that trust and confidence in the charity sector is at a low point. The Independent Review of civil society led by Julia Unwin put out a piece a couple of months ago assuming that public trust and confidence had declined catastrophically. Those who challenge such assumptions for lack of solid evidence are at once suspected of complacency, but over-reaction to opinions expressed by those with a hazy knowledge of what charities are has its own dangers.

I am glad that we do not have “PUBLIC CONFIDENCE SOARS!” headlines this time. I wish we had had less “FALLS TO ALL TIME LOW”  or “TRUSTED LESS THAN THE ORDINARY MAN OR WOMAN IN THE STREET” last time.

There are some other interesting findings in the research which deserve a separate blog.

Day Surgery at St George’s: one person’s experience of the NHS

I have just undergone a second minor operation at the day surgery department of St George’s Hospital, Tooting in south west London. I want to share aspects of this experience and highlight blessings that are too easily taken for granted.

I was under the care of the Urology team, because an investigation to check for prostate cancer, leading to the all clear, had revealed a tumour in my bladder. This had been discovered by an MRI scan which, incidentally, is administered by a separate company contracted to the NHS, in a lorry in the car park outside the hospital. I had expected this to be a brief, silent, space age type experience, but in fact it lasted 30 minutes and sounded more like being in a noisy cement mixer.

The first bout of day surgery was, therefore, to have something called a TURBT (easy to remember because it is like a turbot) which is a cleaning out of the bladder by a very clever device inserted through the uretha, in my case under general anaesthetic. This is followed by analysis to see whether the tumour is of a relatively mild or serious, invasive nature. (Luckily, mine was a mild one.) The only time during this whole story when something went wrong was when the administrative organiser tried to fit me into an early appointment for my TURBT but failed to register the appointment on the system, so I turned up for my big day only to find that I was not expected. But note the response of the consultants: the consultant on duty came to apologise to me in person. He rang his colleague to see if he could fit me in to his surgery the next day. That colleague promised to try, and to ring me to let me know. He did ring and say that he could not fit me in that morning, but would work with his colleagues to find as early an alternative as possible. A day later, I received a phone call just as I was entering the cinema for an evening film; it was the second consultant, saying that he had found a gap for the next morning, and giving me personal instructions about preparing myself.

From that part of my experience I draw two conclusions: one, it underlines that the contribution of “administrative” or “backroom” NHS staff is absolutely crucial, and the politicians’ habit of talking as if they are “red tape”, far less important than doctors and nurses, is wide of the mark. Secondly, I was seriously impressed by the personal courtesy and conscientious commitment of the consultants. It may also seem a small thing that, in letters to my GP reporting on the results of their reviews of my case, it is their habit to refer to me as “this pleasant 68 year old gentleman”. It is not a small thing to me. I have never been called that before, and it sets the tone for the consistent respect and consideration with which they have communicated with me and with all the other patients I observed. Repeatedly, I have heard them talking openly, clearly, sensitively and honestly with every patient, with unfailing courtesy. Urological complaints are not very dignified, but each of those men is, in my experience, treated with complete dignity.

Arriving in the day surgery centre at 7.30 am, you are called one by one to go through a checklist of questions, change into throw-away blue paper shorts and a gown that gapes at the back, have your wedding ring taped and have two plastic bracelets attached saying who you are. You then meet the consultant and sign the consent form, and the anaesthetist. Yes, you do have to answer the same questions several times – so about five or six of them know I do not have any loose teeth – but hey, so what if they check, double and triple check so that they don’t give you the wrong operation or cause you to swallow a loose tooth under anaesthetic?

Once the day’s patients are prepared and changed, we shuffle off to the men’s waiting room, a motley procession indeed in our outsize, rustling paper shorts and flimsy gowns, some bandy kneed, one hobbling with a stick, one pretty tubby, a couple of younger men with vivid tatooes, sitting down to watch daytime TV and cracking jokes about who is going to be called to glory first and whether, since the day surgery shares the building with facial surgery, they might fix our faces at the same time as our bladders. One by one we are called, for a reprise of some of those questions and a bed to lie on for the operation. The anaesthetists also tell me exactly what is going to happen and engage me in chatting about holiday plans to help get through the slightly painful insertion of a drip into the wrist. Perhaps I should not admit it, but I quite enjoy the prospect of slipping into a deep sleep and waking up when it is all over in an orderly recovery section. As I come round a kindly nurse is calling me by name and offering me a glass of water. There is no sense of rush or pressure. When I feel wide awake, I am helped to ease myself gently off the bed and walk off to have a cup of tea and both Bourbon and squashed fly biscuits. The Consultant comes to tell me that the follow up inspection has shown everything in the bladder is all clear, subject to checking the result of a biopsy that will be through in a couple of weeks. He will then welcome me back for an annual check up next February.

I feel looked after, respected and lucky. Lucky, not least, to be in a country with a free health service that, despite all the pressures on it,  will look after the unspectacular, unedifying urological problems of many people (especially men of 60 and over) with such grace and skill. Don’t take it for granted. This pleasant 68 year old gentleman never will.

 

 

 

 

Charity Commission urged to review IEA’s charitable status

Here is my letter of 29 April to Paula Sussex of the Charity Commission challenging the charitable status of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

I have separately asked the Commission to investigate whether IEA’s joint publication with the non-charitable Taxpayers’ Alliance of Proposals for a Conservative Manifesto is in breach of their guidance to charities’  political activity during the General Election Campaign.

 

Dear Paula,

The Institute of Economic Affairs and the Advancement of Education (IEA)

I should like to reinforce my concern that the charitable advancement of education is not the exclusive purpose of the IEA, and to request that the charitable status of the IEA should be re-considered urgently. (My last letter to you in response to yours of 19 October 2016 was sent on 31 October 2016.)

To recap, I quoted the Commission’s previous guidance on the advancement of education for the public benefit (my italics throughout):

Promoting a specific point of view may be a way of furthering another charitable aim, but it would not be education”. And again:

“If the purpose of providing information or education is to persuade people to form specific conclusions, then this is not education.”

“[Charitable education involves] researching and presenting information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate”.

Since our exchange of letters last October, you have summarised lessons to the wider sector from one of your case reviews as being that advancement of education by a charity must not be promoting a predetermined and controversial position.

Your letter to me (19 October 2016) stated that the IEA’s work overall must present an educational, and not propagandist, perspective. It could properly pursue “a legitimate and recognised (that is non-controversial) branch or aspect of the learning of economic or political science”. But this must be “a legitimate aspect of learning” and “within the rigours required of an educational charity”.

I assume that the formulations in your letter are not intended to change and override the other guidance quoted above, but rather to interpret and apply the same charity law in this particular case. If that assumption is correct, pursuing a legitimate aspect of learning with a particular academic orientation (as in a particular school of economics) must still be aiming exclusively at education and learning. It still must not be promoting a specific point of view, persuading people to form specific conclusions, or promoting a predetermined and controversial position. And it must still observe your guidance about researching and presenting information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate. I assume that these are part of what you call “the rigours required of an educational charity”.

The Commission often emphasises that a charity must be and remain established for exclusively charitable purposes, and your guidance CC9 makes clear that political activity is allowed in pursuance of such an objective but may not itself be a purpose. So in saying that a charity’s work “overall” must present an educational perspective, you cannot mean that some of the work can be for a non-charitable purpose such as promoting a predetermined political conclusion. The crucial question is not whether part of the IEA’s purpose is charitable, but whether it all is.

I also note that the Commission and the courts do not take at face value the wording of the charitable objects and Trustee statements, but also (as in the McGovern case) dig deeper to determine whether the way the words are interpreted and applied in practice is in fact charitable.

The rest of my letter rests on these assumptions. I am relying on my past experience and learning as a Board Member of the Commission, but I have no formal legal training, so please tell me if the assumptions are incorrect, and if so in what respect.

Believing them to be correct, I now apply them to the work of the IEA.

On its website, the IEA states that “It is more vital than ever that we promote the intellectual case for a free economy, low taxes, freedom in education, health and welfare, and lower levels of regulation.” All those involved in promoting IEA’s vision, we are told, “believe that society’s problems and challenges are best dealt with by individuals, companies and voluntary associations inter-acting with each other freely without interference from politicians and the state. This means that Government action, whether through taxes, regulation or the legal system, should be kept to a minimum. Our authors and speakers are therefore always on the look-out for ways of reducing the government’s role in our lives”. These statements imply that part of the purpose of the IEA’s work is to promote a specific set of policy outcomes and ways of ordering society. That part is not an educational purpose about learning, ideas or ways of understanding. That part of the purpose is political as the Commission has defined it. The purpose of shrinking the state does not become any less political simply because it derives from a particular way of thinking and learning about economics and politics.

These desired policy outcomes form a predetermined position. That position is controversial, because many people believe that there is an important role for the state in, for example, environmental protection, ensuring minimum standards of welfare and opportunity for every citizen, preventing discrimination, defining and promoting the public interest in planning, health and other spheres, and softening the effects of inequality. Minimizing the state is therefore held by many to be a purpose that may often be against the public interest.

The IEA claims that it “holds no corporate position” and that each author or researcher puts forward a personal view that is not that of the Institute. However, the statements already quoted do resemble a corporate position so closely that it is difficult to tell the difference. So far as I can tell, no research output or statement from any author or staff member of the Institute ever contradicts this position or seriously entertains a contrary opinion. There is no neutrality or balance on these fundamentals.

Moreover, the claim that there is no corporate position does not survive the process of digging into actual practice. Recent “Policy Proposals for a Conservative Manifesto” have been published (jointly with the non-charitable Taxpayers’ Alliance) in the name of the IEA. The common understanding must be that this is the position of the charity. Similarly, it may say in the small print of a report on “A Rational Approach to Alcohol Taxation” by Christopher Snowdon (15 February 2017) that the IEA of which he is a staff member has no corporate view, but the IEA Press Release trumpets: “IEA calls for 9p flat rate of tax on alcohol to fix illogical system”. Other typical press releases use the corporate formulation “IEA reacts to…”, to introduce IEA’s view on sundry proposals by political parties that do not accord with IEA’s clear policy positions (eg Conservative plans to cap energy prices, or Labour’s plan to increase the minimum wage). These views are not attributed to an individual, even if an individual is quoted, but to the IEA. The IEA reacted to the Chancellor’s recent U turn on National Insurance contributions by announcing in a press release that “Hammond should scrap NI contributions altogether” – another controversial political proposal presented as a collective IEA position, (and again apparently reflecting a purpose beyond advancing education alone).

In my letter to you of 31 October 2016 I questioned whether the IEA reports, policy proposals and lobbying on Sock Puppets could plausibly be seen as an expression of educational purpose exclusively, using the criteria set out in Commission guidance as recapitulated above. I should now like to apply the same criteria to other recent reports from the IEA, in case any single IEA initiative might be seen as a one-off.

“Obesity and the Public Purse” by Mark Tovey (23 January 2017) suggests that “the annual savings that overweight and obese people bring UK taxpayers by dying prematurely” (sic) should be deducted from the actual costs of treating and caring for such people before they die, before we start talking about the costs of obesity. The death of some 39,000 people per year, each losing 12 years’ on average, (as acknowledged by Mr Tovey) can in this way be seen as a financial blessing, offsetting the gross costs. It may be that the methodology of working out how much these “savings” are constitutes a contribution to education and learning, but this is then used to advance IEA’s predetermined agenda, by attacking ‘the “burden on the taxpayer” narrative propagated by public health campaigners’. The charity’s press release explains that the report counters the narrative of the “obesity epidemic” that is used to justify policies disliked by the IEA, such as a sugar tax. The Government should therefore not be focusing on this matter of obesity, we are told, but rather on the demands of the elderly who survive and the wider problems of the NHS. The IEA’s predetermined position is that they dislike state intervention to promote public health in areas such as obesity via nanny state educational programmes or taxes: and Tovey’s research is integrated with this non-educational purpose.

In “A Rational Approach to Alcohol Taxation” by Christopher Snowdon, 15 February 2017, the IEA calls for a 9p flat rate of tax on alcohol to fix an illogical system. There are serious points made about the illogicality of the present system, in line (in my view) with an educational purpose to do with coherent thinking about the purposes and effects of public policy. It is another matter, however, to propose a specific 9 pence flat rate that would make almost all alcoholic drinks (other than still cider) cheaper than at present. No serious effort is in my view made to consider possible disadvantages, or to encourage awareness that there might be different, respectable points of view about the best basis on which to pitch the optimal tax rate in the public interest, (for example) by taking into account the damage to society at large as well as Government finances, or acknowledging that different experts compute the cost to Government finances differently. This lack of balance and neutrality reflects the predetermined position, going beyond educational and learning purposes, that we need to minimise state intervention in the form of taxes.

A briefing on disability benefits of 27 December 2016 by Dr Kristian Niemitz explicitly reflects anxiety that the Ken Loach film “I, Daniel Blake” will influence opinion in favour of more generous disability benefits, and hence against the IEA’s pre-determined policies. Dr Niemitz’s survey suggests that the present system is too centralized and has grown unjustifiably over the years. The conclusion is that there should be a pluralist, diverse, localised and partly privatised system of benefits and measures to get disabled people back into work instead. So far from neutrality and balance, with a view to education rather than persuasion, no mention is made of the possible risks and downsides of such a radical upheaval, which might have encouraged readers to decide for themselves.

I have already drawn to your attention the “Policy Proposals for a Conservative Manifesto” just published jointly by IEA and The Taxpayers’ Alliance. These include greater co-payments and private sector competition in health care; capping and cutting taxes; eliminating Government borrowing by 2022, and ending political “interference” in wage setting. It is telling that the IEA has joined forces in this with a political and non-charitable organisation, reflecting the fact that this manifesto goes well beyond the borders of charitable education and learning, with its currency of ideas, into specific policy proposals to advance controversial, pre-determined political positions.

This and other evidence cited in this letter casts profound doubt on the Trustees’ assurances quoted in your letter of 19 October that the IEA has no agenda beyond research into market economics and the dissemination of “ideas”. A political proposal for a 9p flat rate on all alcohol, the recommendations of the Sock Puppets reports, and the recent Manifesto Proposals for Conservatives, are not just ideas or an aspect of advancing education and learning. They are political (as defined by the Commission) proposals designed to advance the predetermined “shrink the state” policy positions of the IEA.

You say in your letter of 19 October that a legitimate and recognised branch of learning can properly have a particular perspective that may border on a political perspective. The crucial question is how, then, a charity whose exclusive purpose is such legitimate learning can be distinguished from a charity which also has a non-charitable political purpose. After all, almost all political proposals of any sort – Marxist, socialist, liberal, statist or pro-market – can be derived from a combination of a political or economic philosophy, research and learning from experience. Yet this cannot give carte blanche to all those promoting a political agenda to claim their purpose is charitable just because their political proposals stem from such disciplines. That is why it is so important that those whose purpose is exclusively the charitable advancement of education must also pass the other tests set out in your guidance:

  1. Their positions must not be predetermined and controversial.
  2. They must not provide information or education with a purpose of persuading people to form specific conclusions or follow particular prescriptions, because that is not education as defined in charity law.
  3. They must research and present information in a neutral and balanced way that encourages awareness of different points of view where appropriate.

I have offered evidence in this letter that the IEA fails all three of these key tests. The IEA’s purpose, once one digs a la McGovern below the surface assurances, is not exclusively the charitable advancement of education. Part of the purpose of the IEA is political (as defined by the Commission), which of course is not allowed under charity law.

I request the Commission to act to correct this situation because:

  • I know the Commission wishes to uphold charity law consistently
  • It is potentially damaging to the reputation of charitable education, and unfair to all the educational charities that strive to adhere conscientiously to the charity law definition of advancing education, if another is allowed to advance a partly political purpose while claiming to be advancing education exclusively
  • It is unfair to the public and the taxpayer to be supporting, via charitable tax privileges, activities that are not exclusively charitable in nature
  • It is unfair to those think tanks whose purpose is partly political and who are therefore denied charitable status if another body with a partly political purpose retains it.

I am not dealing in this letter with the problem (raised in our previous correspondence) that the IEA is also unwilling to be transparent about the source of its donations. You have explained that you do not approve of this lack of transparency but can at present do nothing effective about it. This continuing problem does, however, interact with the issues raised in this letter to risk bringing charitable status into disrepute, since the political positions adopted by the IEA and documented here sometimes favour the interests of particular industries and individuals who, for all we know, may be paying the bills.

Thank you for considering my request for action. I am sending a copy of this letter to your colleagues Kenneth Dibble and Anthony Blake.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Andrew Purkis.

Keep on giving! My letter in today’s Guardian

This is my letter published in the Guardian of 27 April 2017, in response to clumnist John Harris’ argument that charity appeals “normalise” unacceptable gaps in state services:

“John Harris is right that charity is no substitute for state services, and charitable giving can sometimes seem to “normalise” inadequate state provision (We’re still giving, but our vulnerable should not be so dependent on charity, 21 April). But there are two important points that he misses.

Firstly, campaigning for better services, and showing how they might be improved, is precisely part of what many charities do, with the approval of the Charity Commission. When Harris gets out his credit card for many charities, he is supporting such advocacy, so that the vulnerable are given visibility and voice. In the fields he mentions like international development, education, health and medicine and disability, many leading charities champion, rather than undermine, a rights-based approach.

Secondly, as Beveridge recognised, state services alone will never be sufficient to meet all needs justly, to innovate as society changes, or give sufficient opportunities for participation and influence. Under any scenario of public spending, there will be ample space for a vibrant, assertive voluntary sector. Keep giving, John.
Andrew Purkis
London

Will Theresa May make a good Brexit Negotiator?

Theresa May brings some sterling qualities to the incredibly complicated task of negotiating Brexit, but also some worrying flaws. Overall, the flaws may outweigh the merits.

  1. This assessment is based on Rosa Prince’s recent biography “Theresa May – The Enigmatic Prime Minister” (London 2017) which is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job. Prince generally settles for a careful narrative and comments from those involved, without trying to make a tendentious case. The quotations are from both admirers and critics who have worked with or watched her closely. What do her track record and enduring characteristics tell us about how she (and we) will fare as she tries to negotiate the UK’s future – with 27 Members of the EU, with politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and with potential trading partners?
  2. Some beneficial qualities cannot be doubted. She does not like grand-standing, and prefers to get on purposefully with the job. She was under-estimated for many years because she was (apart from her shoes) an un-showy but reliable operator who applied herself diligently to the task in hand. As Andrew Griffiths MP, and her former Chief of Staff, put it, “Theresa was perfectly suited to government. All too often in opposition it’s the peacocks, it’s the people who can put on the greatest speech, can make the audience laugh [who thrive]. But government isn’t about that. It’s about putting in the hard yards, it’s about putting in the effort, it’s about doing the detail. And that’s why Theresa’s reputation changed dramatically when she became Home Secretary”. May comes across as conscientious, hard-working, well prepared and normally very polite – and she doesn’t talk too much. She has shown herself repeatedly to be calm and authoritative in a crisis. She can also be brave, very determined and tough. All that could be helpful when she is negotiating Brexit. Some of these qualities can counter her relative lack of experience in diplomacy and trade negotiations.
  3. The first possible problem is her reserved character, which comes across to many as cold, if not icy. In grown up negotiations this may not matter, as respect for the sterling qualities may be more important than personal warmth and charm. But warmth and charm do have their place in the relationships that make a difference to difficult negotiations. Engaging as human beings can help people move away from stereotypes and fixed positions, as the history of negotiations about Northern Ireland has illustrated. Theresa May does not seem to possess these particular gifts outside a very small trusted circle. We have already squirmed watching her on TV as she fails to connect with her counterparts from across the EU.
  4. Her formidable attention to detail may also be a mixed blessing. The detail involved in negotiating Brexit is overwhelming. May has sometimes had difficulty making prompt decisions because she is so anxious to understand the detail thoroughly and master the issues. When May had to decide whether or not to extradite Gary McKinnon, wanted by the Americans for a massive military computer hack, Rosa Prince writes that “The timing was agonisingly slow; having first been asked by her civil servants to rule on McKinnon’s extradition within days of coming into office, May took her time, as she prefers to do with all the most challenging decisions she faces, not giving her final ruling for another two and a half years”. Nick Timothy, her joint chief of staff, has said of May’s management style: “she wants to know what’s going on and wants to have a handle on things”. As Yvette Cooper, who is said to have “a grudging regard” for May, having watched her closely as shadow Home Secretary, puts it more critically: “The problem is she tends to be cautious and controlling, doesn’t share with other people and doesn’t delegate and can often end up really taking a long time to take decisions even when there are crises”. Those characteristics could spell big trouble when it comes to the vastly more complex and numerous issues involved in Brexit.
  5. There is a widespread perception that May relies very heavily on a tight circle of trusted and loyal friends: particularly her husband Philip, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. This intense dependence on a small group does not seem a promising basis for addressing a vast international negotiation, particularly if the group she knows and trusts best does not know very much about much of the subject matter involved in Brexit. Moreover, if there is already a tendency to want to control and keep a handle on things, and attend to detail, this might be reinforced by the nature of her supposed key Ministerial lieutenants: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, who may well have tensions and disagreements among themselves and, putting it mildly, be lesser masters of detail than May is. Moreover, if May tries to keep up with the detail of Brexit and keep a handle on everything, as well as dealing with the normal workload of a Prime Minister, her health may be at risk, particularly perhaps because she already has to cope with Type 1 Diabetes.
  6. May’s track record of working well with senior officials and Ministers outside her tight circle is mixed. She fell out badly with Dame Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and with Baroness Neville-Jones as Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism, both of whom departed abruptly. Brodie Clark of the UK Border Force and Craig Oliver, Number Ten’s Director of Communications, were victims of her or her spads’ vivid hostility. Against this background, the defenestration of Ivan Cooper as UKREP in Brussels was not necessarily a one-off. Even if May’s former junior Minister Norman Baker’s accusations of a “reign of terror” by May and her spads, intimidating officials in the Home Office, are exaggerated, the scope for further disruptive rows with civil servants over the handling of Brexit when things get rough is ample.
  7. Stubborn attachment to a particular position – one of May’s hallmarks – can sometimes be a virtue in a negotiation, but sometimes an obstacle. Those who think negotiating Brexit is about articulating British interests in a louder and louder voice until the 27 give in or the talks collapse may be reassured, but those who consider such a negotiation should involve give and take have cause to worry. As William Hague described her approach in Cabinet: “Since she has this approach of taking time to decide what to do but then really sticking to it, that sticking to it can lead to some friction with other people who wanted a different approach…..But her approach is: “No, no, I’m right, I’m sticking to my ground and you have to back down.”
  8. Explaining May’s bad relationship with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable said: “Part of it was that Clegg had this system where he would bargain with Cameron over issues….whereas….Theresa….was never up for that. She had a position, she would never compromise it, and she just wasn’t willing to engage in that kind of bartering.” On issues such as tight immigration controls for overseas students and the likes of Chinese businessmen, she fiercely resisted all the arguments of Osborne, Hague, Willetts, Cable and many others: “The fortress Home Office just dug in”(Cable). To be fair, David Laws and Danny Alexander as Chief Secretaries to the Treasury found that May was very tough at fighting her corner in public expenditure rounds, but would also in the end listen and respond. She also showed that she could change her mind on an issue like gay marriage. But the uncompromising refusal to budge from considered positions is much the commoner theme. Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat Minister who had a very good working relationship with May, thought that men find this particularly difficult to handle: “I think the boys couldn’t handle her. I always thought, all the men who found Theresa difficult to deal with, including David Cameron, just weren’t used to someone who stood her ground the way that she did.” We all know that the jolly and experienced Ken Clarke found her “A bloody difficult woman”. So how will she do with all the boys across the EU and in trading nations further afield?
  9. May also has a particular aversion to reneging on a public commitment. How admirable in principle! She cherishes the trust of the public and her reputation as a woman of her word, in contrast to the ducking and weaving of the Cameroons, or the hapless Liberal Democrats over tuition fees. That seems to be why she would brook no compromise such as excluding students from the “hundreds of thousands” immigration target, and why she forced Philip Hammond to reverse his proposed increases in some National Insurance contributions when that infringed the spirit of the Conservative Party Manifesto. The advantage of revealing so little of her Brexit negotiating position thus far is a good thing in so far as she is not committing publicly to positions which she would then find it intolerable to change. But as the negotiations progress, it will become more and more difficult for her to avoid getting entangled in her own public negotiating positions.
  10. Perhaps most seriously of all, Theresa May bears grudges and seeks revenge for perceived disrespect. The church-going vicar’s daughter does not do forgiveness and turning the other cheek in public life. The night of the long knives when she became PM was revenge over those who had slighted or disrespected her in the past. Eric Pickles says: “If you don’t treat her with respect, that’s about the worst thing you can do.” Rosa Prince notes that “Over the six years she served as Home Secretary, May became embroiled in serious feuds with a staggering number of fellow ministers, MPs, officials, organisations and individuals who crossed her path.” Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Clarke, Clegg, Cable, Huhne, Neville Jones, Ghosh, Brodie Clark, the Police Federation, Craig Oliver: these and many MPs look on from beyond the grave as victims of May’s vengeance. So if she feels disrespected by European leaders or EU officials or MEPs, or by Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland or Northern Ireland politicians, how will this affect her ability to negotiate? If her reported hostility to Dame Helen Ghosh was, as suggested in The Spectator, responsible for her unusually passionate outburst slamming the National Trust (led by Ghosh) for removing the word “Easter” from a particular Egg Hunt, we may well fear for her judgement when her vengeful hostility is aroused.
  11. So here is our Prime Minister, as portrayed in Rosa Prince’s biography, as she leads us into the most complicated and important negotiations for generations. It is good that she is hard working, attentive to detail, well prepared, tough, and unflappable in a crisis. It is not so good that she can get drawn too deeply into detail, may find it difficult to delegate sufficiently, wants to keep control, and relies heavily on a very small trusted group, sometimes clashing badly with those outside it. Nor is it helpful to supple negotiation that she is very reluctant to abandon fixed positions and bears fierce, enduring grudges against those who seem to disrespect her. It seems inconceivable that someone of Theresa May’s character and qualities could have pulled off the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Should we not harbour real apprehensions, therefore, as we contemplate the far more complex negotiations to come over the future of the UK in Europe and the world, and the future of the UK itself?

Maintaining Independence: 4 Big Challenges for Trustees

Introduction to Association of Chairs’ Discussion, 14 March 2017

  1. Thank you very much for inviting me to lead this discussion. I think the Association of Chairs has a very important role and I am a great fan of how it is being developed. Congratulations to Rosalind Oakley and the Board. (Please see their website: https://www.associationofchairs.org.uk).
  2. I was asked to talk about maintaining independence. My premise is that independence is an essential, distinguishing feature of charities and other voluntary organisations. The reason that we enjoy the privileges of charitable status is that Parliament thinks it is a good thing for there to be an independent source of ideas and action for charitable causes that is not beholden to any private, commercial or party political interest and is for the public benefit. That is why it is rightly a scandal if a charity is found to be suborned to some individual’s personal interest or a front for a political party or vested interest. So cherishing our independence is of existential importance.
  3. Another premise is that formal independence is necessary but not sufficient. There must be genuine independence of thought and action. In present company I am thinking particularly of the independence of thought and action by Boards and by Chairs. If it not actively exercised, independence can become an empty formality.
  4. I want to choose issues that pose dilemmas directly for us in our role as Chairs. Therefore, I am not, for example, going to deal with the possible problem of “phoney” charities where a state service dons charity clothes like Widow Twankey in order to be able to fundraise but doesn’t necessarily change its nature.
  5. So here are the four issues I have chosen to get us started.
  • Do we let our staff do our thinking and visioning for us? Are we sufficiently independent of our staff?
  • Do we constrain our independence by being too risk-averse, especially in relation to speaking truth to power?
  • Are we too dependent on the state or other particular funders?
  • Is our capacity for self-criticism and self-renewal adequate – can our independence sometimes be degraded by routine, habit, and failure to question our own narratives and ways of doing things?
  1. Dependence on Staff: There are many layers here, and the position of very big charities is not the same at that of smaller ones. But in general the staff, working every day, have a huge advantage of expertise and knowledge over the Trustees and it is quite common for Chief Executives to assume they are the “real” leaders and expect the Board, if not to rubber stamp the staff’s decisions, to tweak at the margins if they must, so long as they do not become a serious nuisance to the smooth management of the charity.
  2. Nor is it uncommon for the Chief Executive, in effect, to appoint the Chair and the rest of the Board also. That may be an extreme example, but most of us will probably be familiar with a balance between Chief Exec and Board that is not quite what it should be, and that compromises the ability of the Board to be the independent guardians of mission and values, and challenge staff if necessary as they should. Maybe this is one of the lessons of the fundraising scandals of the past couple of years: it is not enough to leave major functions entirely to the experts. It is not enough to speak when spoken to by the staff and for the rest leave them to manage the charity. Interdependence is the ideal so long as it is genuine. But the stubborn fact remains that we are not doing our job as Boards properly if we are excessively dependent on our staff to do our thinking, visioning, strategizing and due diligence.
  3. Risk Aversion. I am no advocate for being irresponsible, but we fetter our freedom of thought and action if we allow finger wagging by the Charity Commission, or criticisms by politicians or the media, to intimidate us into excessive risk aversion. There are important financial angles to this, but I am thinking particularly of our historic role of contributing to public awareness, informing decision-making and speaking truth to power, ie non-party political activity. When I was in the Charity Commission and we were preparing CC9 (the current guidance on political activity), we found evidence that many Boards were self-censoring to a much greater extent than was justified by charity law. They were buying into the view, not supported by charity law, that there is something inherently suspect, inappropriate or risky about non-party political activity. Of course that is the view of some politicians and newspaper commentators, and some of the general public, and certain destabilising interventions of the Chairman and Board members of the Charity Commission over the last four years have not helped. But in my view we are letting our beneficiaries down if we are not thinking hard about what is the most effective way of advancing their interests, including whether non-party political activity should be part of the mix. So long as Trustees have thought about this carefully and reached their own independent conclusion, the likelihood of any intervention by the Charity Commission at all, let alone any intervention that causes serious trouble to the charity, is remote in the vast majority of cases. Let us not constrain our options by unnecessary self-censorship.
  4. Dependence on a major funder: This is a familiar one. Self-deception is quite common, in my experience, among those who depend largely on a single funder and yet who maintain it does not affect their independence. In the longer run, it nearly always does. One reason for a diverse funding base is financial sustainability, should one major funding source fail. The other is independence, because you can if necessary walk away from a big funder who starts to push you around. This is most commonly, though not always, a state funder. A very senior official in DFID told me recently that, even in the case of INGOs with a strong and mixed funding base, the relationship and discussion with them, being large recipients of DFID funds, was quite different from the relationship with, say, Human Rights Watch which has no DFID funding. The compromise may be worth making, but it is a compromise. The larger the dependence on one funder, the greater the danger. I admire decisions from charities like The Children’s Society and the Refugee Council to reduce radically dependence on commissioning in order the better to set their own agendas, listen to beneficiaries, innovate, and speak truth to power. Not all charities should come up with the same answer, but in all cases the likely perception and reality of long term erosion of independence should be taken honestly and consciously into account.
  5. Losing the Capacity for Self Renewal. Independence of thought and action needs to be a living reality, not a formality. The occasions when we de-clutter our minds from merely keeping the show on the road and make space for going back to our mission and values, and challenging ourselves to rethink our priorities and how we do things, are no luxury, but the way of exercising freedom of thought and action and making a reality of our claims of independence. It is quite easy to be imprisoned by our own received narratives and organisational habits. We may in practice define our role as surviving, keeping things going despite all the odds. Particularly where charities are permanently embattled, AwayDays or similar opportunities for fresh thinking and self-renewal can seem desirable rather than essential. Yet gaining fresh, independent perspective may be the key to finding pathways to overcoming a sense of permanent crisis. And spaces where the Trustees are not merely reacting to propositions put to them by staff, but are themselves shaping the questions and summoning fresh perspectives, are essential pre-requisites of a healthy Board, fulfilling its governance responsibilities in an independent charity. Do we create enough of those spaces?
  6. So there are just four bundles of issues that can pose dilemmas with which perhaps all of us are familiar as Chairs, trying to enable our charities to live up to our crucial claims of independence:
  • Not being sufficiently independent of our staff
  • Excessive risk aversion
  • Dependence on a major funder
  • Inadequate mechanisms for self-renewal and thinking.
  1. I hope you will find plenty to unpack in those bundles and will be able to add your own further thoughts about what can inhibit that independence, and how we can best nurture it. I look forward to our discussion. And those reading this as a blog, please add your comments too.

 

A “Post Truth” Challenge to Charities

The more worrying the apparent explosion of post truth slogans, fake news and alternative facts, the more carefully charities must think about their own messaging: its tone, accuracy and long term (as well as immediate) consequences.

In a recent blog, I described how important the contribution of many charities is to the infrastructure of truth-seeking, fact checking and evidence-based discourse in our public life. I suggested that this impressive contribution deserved greater recognition and support in current circumstances:

https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/charities-role-in-the-post-truth-era/

Now for the other side of the story. We should also consider honestly whether charities might sometimes be part of the problem rather than the solution. This should come as no surprise since the charity sector is so diverse. There are a number of reasons why many charities do not prioritize rationality, scrupulous fairness and objectivity in their public messaging.

Many charitable causes are based on strong moral and religious beliefs that transcend reason and facts alone. About one in six charities has the advancement of religion as a charitable object. Depending on the religion in question, truth for many of these depends on revelation, tradition or spiritual insight as much as, or more than, reason. Many secular charities are motivated by a burning sense of indignation about injustice, or cruelty to animals or people, or by a deep seated faith that every human being is equally precious. To arouse support and advance their cause, their currency must include appeals to emotion and to belief, not reason alone. The Charity Commission has given up on the efforts made in the 1980s and 1990s to impose a rule of “rational” discourse, because the case law does not provide a robust basis for defining this and because emotions, including enthusiasm, indignation, joy and compassion, are recognised as an enduring and proper part of charitable communication. The Slave Trade (like the targets of many campaigns for charitable causes ever since) was not abolished by people being non partisan and objective.

Messages must indeed be effective and appropriate to their intended purpose and audience. You will not persuade many members of the public to get their wallets out, nor inspire and motivate your mass support, by carefully nuanced and qualified essays. Charities are competing for attention and for funds, with each other and with innumerable commercial and state advertisers, and then trying to retain and motivate supporters to act and give repeatedly. They cannot ignore the need to be effective and to stand out in a demanding, crowded communications scene.

Moreover, many charitable causes are fiercely contested. Some of the worst excesses of Breitbart fake news and alternative facts stem from the mentality that its followers are engaged in a war, or multiple wars (as Steve Bannon repeatedly emphasises): and we all know what the first casualty of war is. Many charities may also, to some extent, think of themselves as in a war: against developers threatening the countryside, against endemic cruelty to animals, against international corporations and their governmental cronies capturing a disproportionate share of wealth and power, against patriarchy, racism and homophobia, against vested interests putting profits above the environment, against a perceived godless immorality. And if you feel part of a war, one of the tempting instruments is propaganda – to sustain the motivation and morale of your troops and strike fear into the hearts of your enemies.

So many charities will be drawn towards emotive, simple, striking, one-sided and motivational messaging. In addition, every communication has to be selective. Even if the selected facts are all true, many facts with a possibly different implication will necessarily be omitted. The presentation of  ostensibly objective facts rests on an implicit, if not explicit, value base, enabling even the Institute for Fiscal Studies or Full Fact to be accused of bias by some of those who do not like what they say. Indeed, part of what the charity sector contributes to democratic life is the presentation of alternative facts: not in the topical sense of lies, but of facts pertinent to excluded groups or to a particular charitable interest that would otherwise be lost to public view. For it is not the charity’s job to present all the facts, but facts that advance the charitable cause. Thus, the facts presented by the Campaign to Protect Rural England will be different, or alternative, facts to those presented by The Housebuilders’ Federation, enriching public debate along the way.

The dilemma is that selective messaging with a particular result in mind –  fully justified as it may often be – can share a blurred borderline with the divisive slogans of the post truth echo chambers. We face the danger of slipping over the line into a race to the bottom where truth seeking, fact checking and an awareness of other views get left behind. This is how William Moy, Director of Full Fact, puts it: “Someone at the BBC once told me that one of the first things they say when delivering their in-house statistics training is ‘Don’t trust statistics from charities’. Charities have been known to put results above rigour when it comes to communications and if everybody keeps pushing the line just a bit, if standards gradually slip, or if the public starts to think what journalists already do, we risk one day realising that the trust charities sometimes take for granted has slipped away.”

How many times do some charities suppress or ignore  survey results that do not say what they want to hear? Base a survey on leading questions? Uncritically repeat the results of poorly constructed surveys or polls because they support the charity’s line? Highlight what a minority of respondents say – because it supports our messages – rather than what the majority say? Does any of this sound familiar?

After the Brexit referendum vote, Sir Stuart Etherington called on civil society to accept the challenge of helping to overcome the acute divisions revealed during the campaign. The downgrading of fairness, truth (as opposed to half truths) and respect for other people’s views had played into a sense of mutual incomprehension, as if people in the same country were living in parallel universes, two gigantic and completely separate echo chambers. So how can charities heed Sir Stuart’s challenge in their messaging, without compromising their long term effectiveness?

Trustees and their senior staff have no good option but to try to square the circle: they must communicate effectively in the world as it is, but without sliding into a divisive echo chamber, misusing data and contributing to post-truth degradation of public discourse. The answers will of course differ from charity to charity, depending on whether they are at the IFS, King’s Fund, Royal Statistical Society and Full Fact end of the spectrum or one of those who feel at war against threats to their beneficiaries, or somewhere in the middle. Here are some key points to have in mind.

Firstly, let us recall that, even in such a contested area as the abolition of the Slave Trade, the quality, depth and conscientious checking of research and evidence played an indispensable part in the success of the campaign. Vested interests would have pounced on inaccuracies and they could and did produce their own equivalent of fake news that had to be knocked down. One reason for care and accuracy in communications by charities has always been that they work better: if you are caught out peddling inaccuracies, exaggerations or half truths, respect for what you say tends to decline and you have less influence for your cause. Beware the topical trope that fact-checking doesn’t work. Yes, it matters how true facts are communicated effectively, and combined in compelling narratives,but the facts themselves are stubborn: even all the money and effort thrown by the tobacco lobby at raising doubts about the link between smoking and cancer, or the current well funded efforts to question man-made global warming, have failed in most places and communities across the globe, and will surely fail everywhere in the end. By contrast, the fact that the best charitable think tanks and small campaigning charities have influence far above their size and money depends on a reputation for accuracy, reliable expertise and integrity.

Secondly, if a charity is caught out pushing half truths or inaccuracies, Brand Charity (as well as the particular charity) suffers, public trust may dip (as explained by Will Moy), and the public consensus behind your charitable privileges becomes just a little less secure. The sector waited until a scandal in the newspapers before acting to raise its fundraising standards. Shall we wait in the same way for a scandal about our standards in the use of data and evidence? There are lots of excellent politicians and journalists of great integrity, but when others habitually drag them down they find themselves bumping along the bottom of public trust indices.

Thirdly, the ominous consequences of post truth and fake news now constitute an additional reason. If we are tempted to join in a competition in the currency of sensationalist half truths and partisan oversimplifications, we shall probably lose to the zenophobes, sexists, racists, and self righteous ideologues who do it much more ruthlessly than we ever could. On the whole, it is not charitable causes that benefit from coarse public dialogue, acute social divisions, unmediated anger and mutual incomprehension.

Trustees  and senior staff therefore need to ensure that their charities have their own internal fact-checking and testing mechanisms for fairness and accuracy, so that they do not become part of the race to the bottom. This can be very difficult. It is one of the most sensitive areas for staff/Trustee relations, as staff do not want Trustees to be crawling over every message in draft; yet Trustees are responsible for safeguarding overall values and standards, knowing that even one misleading piece of communication can have a major impact for ill. It is also easy to trigger tensions between teams – for example, fundraisers versus policy teams, who have different jobs to do – or dampening the  morale and effectiveness of campaigning, communications and fundraising through an excess of caution. So it is far from easy, but is nevertheless essential.

A second implication for Trustees was highlighted by Karl Wilding of the NCVO in an acute comment to my previous blog on this subject (referenced above). Should civility be an explicit value of more charities? It implies that we are willing to engage, rather than just write off, people who may disagree with us, that we try to persuade without abuse, that we try to understand the legitimate interests of those who are affected by our recommendations for change, that we can disagree robustly without being rude and self righteous, that we can challenge the threats to our beneficiaries without the mentality and tools of war and propaganda. Should there also be more frequent mention of truth and accuracy? Look at your own mission and values statement: it is robust for the “post truth” era?

In the “post truth” age, surely Trustees and senior staff will want to consider both their official statements of values, and the mechanisms for assuring themselves that they are being honoured in practice in the tone and substance of their communications and their use of data – however pressing the need for short term impact and results?