Why Charging Charities is not the answer to the Charity Commission’s strapped budget

Here is an open letter I have written to the Chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Tina Stowell, on behalf of the Directory of Social Change, of which I am lucky enough to be a Trustee. The letter sets out why none of the available methods of charging charities for their own regulation is without huge problems. The DSC questions whether it can be a good use of time and energy to debate improbable charging options, which detract from the urgent need to make the Commission’s strong case to Government and Parliament.

25 July 2018

Dear Baroness Stowell,

Charging Charities

I write to you as a Trustee of the Directory of Social Change (DSC).  As I am sure you are aware, DSC is a long-standing and engaged supporter of the Charity Commission and its critical role for the sector and the public.

We understand you are wisely taking some time to get a handle on the complex issues around charging charities in some way, to pay for some of the work of the Charity Commission (“the Commission”). Helen Stephenson has repeated recently that she wants to have that conversation with the sector, so we assume that the subject remains live. I have been asked to express the charity’s reservations about this.

DSC has consistently argued that it has been a short-sighted, counter-productive policy to slash the Commission’s budget in recent years. We also strongly espouse the importance of a genuinely independent regulator – independent of the Government of the day, and independent of the sector, championing the long-term public interest in a healthy charity sector without fear or favour. We know how important it is to secure not just more funds, but more predictable funds, for the Commission.

Until your arrival, the leading policy idea for consultation was said to be a levy on larger charities to raise about £7 million per year, but we assume other models of charging may also be on the table.

DSC is opposed to the idea of charging charities for regulation, or indeed any other services provided by the Commission to the sector. Of course, we understand the extreme pressures the Commission is under, not least that the budget is dependent on regular public expenditure negotiations with a Government Department and HM Treasury.

However, we do not believe that removing the burden from the Exchequer and putting it more onto charities (and by proxy, on charitable donors) is the best course of action or the right one in principle.

So far, the options around charging can be broadly divided into three types, which we examine in turn. First, charging all or most kinds of charities some form of levy, eg on a sliding scale; second, charging this only to some (probably larger) charities; and third, charging for particular services or based on processes (i.e. submitting reports and accounts, or registration). There are advantages and disadvantages with each approach.

Charging all or most charities a levy

This approach is the only one that could yield most of the Commission’s budget. So it could substantially improve the quantum and predictability of funding and largely eliminate financial dependence on the Government of the day. If done on a sliding scale, it could be roughly proportionate and more affordable for smaller organisations. However, there would also be significant downsides:

 

  • There would be a perception of dependence on the sector, which could undermine the status of the Commission as acting independently of charities in the public interest. If charities pay the piper, how many people will trust the piper to call the tune independently in the longer run?

 

  • The mechanisms of collecting and chasing fees, and bringing defaulters to book, and deciding what to do about charities that have more than one regulator, constitute a formidable administrative nightmare – which might be disproportionate to the revenue raised.

 

  • It would be a massive change in the bargain that, with all party support in Parliament for many decades, has governed the relationship between charities and the wider public (including donors and volunteers).

 

  • It is a duty of Trustees to ensure that the charitable funds entrusted to them should be spent in the best possible way to support their charitable objects – not the Charity Commission’s regulatory mission. People give not to charity in general but to particular charitable causes.

 

  1. Charging only some (likely larger) charities a levy

The advantages of this approach would be that it might reduce potential opposition from a majority of the sector, which is comprised predominantly of small and micro charities, many if not most of which would very likely be unable or unwilling to pay a levy. The burden would fall on those with the greatest income. However, this too has significant disadvantages, namely:

  • It would be arbitrary and unfair that donors to larger charities would wind up subsidising the regulation for everyone else. Plus, where would the dividing line be set, and who would decide whether and why this was just or fair? If the levy is a flat rate, why should larger charities with widely different incomes pay the same amount while others pay nothing at all?

 

  • It does not deal with the problem of dependence on Government for most of the Commission’s budget.

 

  • If only larger charities must pay a levy, paying as it were for the privilege of being a charity whose reputation benefits from regulation, and effectively subsidising the good regulation of smaller charities, those charities could reasonably expect a bigger say in the Commission’s strategic priorities, or governance. This could threaten the perception, and reality, of the regulator’s independence.

 

  • Even a limited levy on the larger charities would be the thin end of the wedge, leading to progressive atrophy of public expenditure on charity regulation. Once the principle is accepted that charities should pay towards their regulation, the walls are breached. Why not then, in a couple of years, a bit more? Then more again? “Assurances” to the contrary would be inherently unreliable in the long run.

 

  • The Commission has previously mooted the argument that a levy could pay for the “softer” part of the Commission’s role, whereas public expenditure should pay for investigation and compliance. This is a flawed narrative – that the “real” or “essential” work of the Commission is to be a policeman whereas positive, preventive work to make compliance work less necessary is a soft luxury. DSC maintains that good regulation integrates preventive, positive and reactive work as an interrelated whole. We are really pleased to note that you and Helen now seem to be leading in this spirit.

 

  1. Charging for specific services or regulatory processes

 

This option has theoretical advantages over a levy. Trustees and donors might have fewer objections in principle to paying for a service relevant to their own cause and charity than for services which benefit other unrelated charities and causes. Those who need the service would pay for it. However, even with this there remain big problems, because:

 

  • There are problems of principle. The charity sector is accustomed to a bargain with society where services from the Commission are available free at the point of need. Similarly, trustees are volunteers who do not derive personal profit from the charity’s work. Changing that bargain is no small thing.

 

 

  • This option does not deal with continuing dependence on Government for most of the Commission’s funding.

 

  • There could be undesirable deterrent effects. If I have to pay for such and such a product or service, perhaps I think can do without – when actually I do need it? This could drive poorer compliance from those charities that need it most. Enabling regulation could well be unintentionally weakened.

 

  • There could be perceived injustice where charities that are as good as gold must pay for certain services whereas charities that behave badly and cause damage to the sector wind up paying nothing towards the untold hours of Commission work that they cause.

 

  • Similarly to the sliding scale levy options, designing and enforcing the system of services and payments would introduce major administration and transaction costs. How would a fair distinction be made between what is to be paid for by a charity and what can be funded from the public purse because Parliament wishes to encourage a healthy charity sector?

 

So, all of these options come with serious downsides.

 

  1. Further points to consider around introducing a levy or charges

 

  • Most if not all these options would require legislation, which would be highly contentious. Is it worth fighting this battle outside and inside Parliament, even if space could ever be found in the legislative programme? Given the major difficulties, how likely is it that a “conversation” will be productive?

 

  • We are not starting from a blank sheet of paper. We are starting with a bargain stretching back into the nineteenth century where the regulation of charities is beneficial to society and a proper call on the public purse. Diverting time and energy into debating levies or charges simply weakens the case to be made in Parliament and Government for proper recognition of the importance of the Commission’s role, via Exchequer spending.

 

  • We know that many regulated bodies in other spheres pay towards their regulation – but rather than using this as an argument for introducing charges, the Charity Commission should instead explain why the charity sector is distinct. It does not operate for profit and is to a large degree supported by public donations. It is long established policy to encourage volunteering and donations to advance charitable causes for the good of society. It would strengthen your case for funding from the Exchequer if you reiterated this important distinctive point about the charity sector both within government and publicly – and you can be assured of DSC’s vocal support in this.

 

 

  • Please do not put too much weight on the recent finding of your report on public trust, to the effect that most donors would not mind a fraction of their donation going to the Commission. It all depends on the question you ask. What response do you think you would have got to this question: “Would you be happy for a small part of your donation to your favourite cause to pay for regulation by the Charity Commission, which previously has always been paid for in full by the Government?”

 

  1. What we should be debating instead of the various options around charging charities

In conclusion, we believe this whole issue needs to be rethought from fundamental principles. Namely, how can we achieve a sufficient level of predictable funding to support the Charity Commission’s vital work, in a way that enhances rather than risks its independence, and which is fair to charities (and their distinctive role in society) and the donating public? Unfortunately, none of the options presented above provide a good answer to that question.

The answer, in our view, must involve considering how the Commission’s budget is debated and decided within government, and Parliament’s participation in the process, rather than what kind of charges we should or shouldn’t have.

The Charity Commission is not accountable to a Minister or a government department but to Parliament, for very good reasons. It must of course account for spending public money, but its remit and regulatory priorities shouldn’t effectively be set by the Government of the day or cramped via insufficient spending settlements. We should explore ways of giving Parliament more of a binding say in how the budget is set – for example by giving a Committee the power to propose or veto the Commission’s spending settlement. In the meantime, the focus on building the case for more satisfactory Exchequer funding should be maintained, rather than dissipated in debating improbable alternatives involving charging or levies.

Thank you for considering these points as you ponder the best way forward. As always, DSC is transparent in its contributions to public debate, and we will publish our letter and any response from you on our website – in good faith and in the spirit of openness.

Yours sincerely,

 

Andrew Purkis

DSC Trustee

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 Doubts about NCVO’s Draft Code of Ethics for Charities

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is consulting on a draft Code of Ethics for the whole charity sector. There are a number of questions worth pondering carefully about this venture.

  1. It is excellent that there is generous time for consultation. Depending on the response, there would be absolutely no dishonour to anybody if it ends up taking a somewhat different form or with substantially amended content.

Inherent Difficulties of Concept

  1. Charities are so utterly diverse that to identify principles apposite to all is bound to lead to a very high level of generality. The danger is that such a collection of high level generalisations does not add value, even as a checklist, because they can seem abstract: connections with the real life processes and decisions that can turn the principles into reality, and resolve tensions or contradictions between them, are unclear. The Charity Governance Code, which is said to be “complementary” to the draft Code of Ethics, was much more successful in making the links between desirable principles and how to set about enshrining them in the organisation. For instance, it already has in my opinion much more useful material on the subject of diversity and inclusion than the draft Code of Ethics.
  2. The draft Code of Ethics does not even say that every charity should have an explicit description of its values and should review regularly whether they are being fully embodied in the work of the charity: that kind of suggestion, which might be more likely to change actual behaviour, belongs better to the nature of the Charity Governance Code[1].
  3. Indeed, there are disadvantages of having a separate Code of Ethics. It might encourage the dubious idea that it is a subject in its own right, separate from and complementary to good Governance. Since it is essential, however, that the values and ethos of a charity are the ultimate responsibility of the Trustees, and a completely integral part of good governance, is there not a strong case for integrating the draft Code of Ethics into the next iteration of the Charity Governance Code? That stands a better chance of making crucial connections between the core principles of ethical governance (already there in the Charity Governance Code, but capable of elaboration where necessary) and the ethical practice principles, processes and disciplines that can help achieve them.
  4. Moreover, from a Trustee perspective, I can assure you, the fewer Codes, the better: it is more important to get wider digestion and usage of The Essential Trustee and the Charity Governance Code, which are hard enough to get many Trustees to read anyway, than to add to their reading list. And the Charity Governance Code has the advantage of collaborative official auspices that include a number of different umbrella bodies, including but not limited to the NCVO.
  5. So are we sure there is a robust consensus for creating an additional Code of Ethics at all?

 Coherence?

  1. The overall aim of the draft Code is to be a framework within which charities can review their own codes of conduct if they have them, and their processes and policies, taking into account the values shared across the charity sector. A narrower stated aim is to “enable all charities, not matter their size of type of activity, to be a safe place for anyone who comes into contact with them”, reflecting the current anxiety about safeguarding in particular. Perhaps another is to respond to valid criticisms of the sector’s lack of diversity and inclusion. The current draft does not succeed fully in moulding these purposes coherently together.
  2. For example, the importance of inclusion and diversity features strongly in the introductory part of the Code but they do not feature in their own right among the principles later enumerated. Instead, they are treated as scattered subsets of Beneficiaries First, Integrity, Openness and the Right to be Safe. It is unclear how the principle of respecting every individual’s privacy and appropriate confidentiality sits alongside the separate principle of transparency and openness being the default option. It doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory to shoehorn environmental responsibility in under “Integrity”.
  3. The Right to be Safe receives a strong share of attention because of current concerns but the attempt to flesh out the principles in this section still falls short. There is nothing about taking particular care where there are unequal power relationships, about recognising and countering the systematic biases relating to gender (central to a majority of safeguarding cases) and race, about the principle of enabling safe, confidential whistleblowing or involving an independent element in considering safeguarding allegations against senior staff or Trustees. All in all, the draft Code struggles to find a consistent pitch and coherence, though we must remember that it remains work in progress.

Omissions from the draft Code of Ethics

  1. It is striking that there is no mention of the systematic bias that women and ethnic minorities commonly face in our society, including the charity sector. Would it not be more likely to have an impact if this were made explicit?
  2. The draft Code says charities should reflect their charitable ethos in every activity they undertake, but this is of limited help since there is no overall definition of what a charitable ethos is. One aspect is rightly emphasised under the heading Beneficiaries First: keeping the charitable objects and the interests of the beneficiaries front and central is absolutely part of a charitable ethos, but only part. What about public benefit – understanding what it means, what it precludes, being accountable for it, living it – which is one core ethical as well as legal imperative that all charities by definition have in common? No mention. What about the core value of independence? No mention. For the vast majority of charities, what about cherishing the salience of volunteer effort (including volunteer Trustees) and money freely given by donors, as another core element of charitable ethos? As part of that, what about avoiding a purely instrumental or manipulative view of donors? Thin pickings on all this in the draft Code so far.
  3. To be fair, no manageable Code can cover every ethical issue, and this is a difficult job, but there are other omissions I found disappointing. There is no principle of Civility, which I particularly associate with NCVO: abjuring the coarsening of public discourse with its careless slogans and mutually uncomprehending echo chambers, in favour of respectful listening, patient explanation and engagement with those with whom we disagree, within and beyond the sector. For it is certainly not charitable causes that will come out on top if we collude with polarised shouting. Should this not be addressed better in the draft Code?
  4. Some charities carry on the way they always have without any process of critical self-review or consideration of alternatives: is this not a key ethical issue? Is it ethical for a charity to continue its work without attempting to assess the effectiveness and impact of what it is doing? Is it ethical to continue as a separate charity without considering the possibility of a merger, a de-merger, closer collaboration, or termination of the charity? Why is there no mention of these?

Conclusion

  1. The current draft has plenty of helpful elements but it does not at present do the job. The inherent problems of having a separate Code of Ethics for the whole charity sector under NCVO auspices are formidable. A more fruitful alternative may be to integrate the best of the draft Code of Ethics into the Charity Governance Code (in so far as they are not already integrated), which is already establishing itself, and has a much better chance of connecting broad principles to the processes, policies and choices that have to be made in practice if they are to become a living reality. It also has an encouragingly broad auspices, including but not limited to NCVO.
  2. Whether or not this course is chosen, the most significant omissions in the current draft of the Code should be rectified. If it is to exist separately at all, it must carry a high level of authority.

 

 

 

[1] This is not specifically my idea; it has come up in conversation with other charity Chairs.

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is at it again

The IEA seems to have shot itself in the foot this time.

IEA is a free market think tank that enjoys charitable status for the advancement of education. I have drawn attention repeatedly to what I regard as breaches of the Charity Commission’s guidance on the proper nature of charitable education – that it should inform the public in a balanced and neutral way, and should not be promoting a predetermined position, particularly on controversial topics. There are also, in my opinion, endemic  breaches by IEA of the separate guidance that the purpose of a charity must be exclusively charitable, since it seems to me that part of the purpose of the IEA is political (as defined by the Charity Commission in CC9) because it consistently seeks to shrink the state in many different dimensions of policy.

Twice in recent times, the Charity Commission has investigated such complaints against the IEA, and twice thought it had achieved a thorough understanding with the Trustees about observing the rules of a charity for the advancement of education. The first time, however, it was not very long before the supposed understanding collapsed. The Commission had to tell the IEA to take down and remove its joint “Manifesto Proposals for a Conservative Government” that produced various contentious political proposals in association with the non-charitable Taxpayers’ Alliance. They thought they had also reached a deeper understanding on being particularly careful about press releases or social media contributions that might be seen as promoting a predetermined or political view rather than charitable education. In a sense, one might assume, the Trustees would realise that they were on probation, to demonstrate adherence to this supposed second thorough understanding, having failed to live up to the previous one.

Then came the recent ruling by the Commission about the Legatum Institute Foundation’s report on Brexit. That report was found to breach the Commission’s guidance because it “failed to make clear that there are multiple potential Brexit outcomes and that free trade is one of a number of political outcomes.” As a result, the report did not demonstrate the necessary balance and neutrality of charitable education: it “could be seen as promoting a particular political view for the aim of a particular outcome and recommending specific government action that reflects this.” That, said the Commission, is inconsistent with the purpose of charitable education.

I wrote to the Charity Commission to point out that this ruling cast grave doubt over the charitable status of the IEA, since its reports routinely bear the same hallmarks of those complained of by the Commission in the Legatum case.

In these circumstances, would you assume that the IEA would be particularly careful to demonstrate its own observance of the rules?

Not a bit of it. The day before the Prime Minister’s all day meeting with her Cabinet at Chequers on 6 July, the IEA tweeted the following:

Thus, the IEA follows almost to the letter what the Commission said was wrong in the Legatum report. The tweet “failed to make clear that there are multiple potential Brexit outcomes and that free trade is one of a number of political outcomes.”  And the tweet “could be seen as promoting a particular political view for the aim of a particular outcome and recommending specific government action that reflects this” – and on the same subject.

The tweet makes “simple” political proposals that have nothing to do with charitable education, in pursuit of the IEA’s objective of shrinking the state and promoting specific policies that reflect their pretermined position. They make something of a mockery of the Commission’s guidance that “the nature of education is informative, enabling the reader to form their own conclusions” and “it is not generally appropriate for an educational charity to advocate changes in public policy.”

I have written to Helen Stephenson at the Charity Commission complaining about this further breach.

Will it be a case of “three strikes and you’re out” when it comes to the IEA’s charity status? Will the Commission accept that this leopard is not going to change its spots?

What is charitable education? Status of Institute of Economic Affairs under spotlight again

The Charity Commission has recently confirmed that charitable education for the public benefit must inform the public in a balanced and neutral way. It should not, they say, comprise selectively presented information that is designed to promote a particular point of view.

The Legatum Institute Foundation recently fell foul of this guidance with its report “Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity” published on 4 November 2017″. The Commission decided that it was OK for Legatum to have a free trade perspective as a starting point, but it was not OK to fail to make clear that there are multiple Brexit outcomes and that free trade is only one of a number of potential political outcomes that might be sought. It was not OK to fail to present balanced, neutral evidence and analysis. As a result, the Commission concludes that the report could be seen as promoting a particular political view for the aim of a particular outcome and recommending specific Government action that reflects this. That is inconsistent, says the Commission, with the purpose of charitable education.

I have written to Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, to suggest that this guidance is incompatible with the continuing charitable status of the free market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

The IEA produces a whole stream of reports, articles and verbal media contributions on highly controversial subjects, all with a view to shrinking the state and promoting free market solutions. They are not balanced and neutral. There is no consideration of the downsides of policies recommended by IEA reports nor of other desirable outcomes or alternatives. As I write to Helen Stephenson, “Whether the subject is the growth of obesity, the taxation of alcohol, public health policies, taxation, tax havens, Sock Puppets or solving the housing crisis by reducing planning controls, you will find in every case a one-sided and controversial contribution (whether adorned by footnotes or not) aimed at reducing the role of the state.” One of the latest is, in the words chosen by IEA, “a report debunking the myths surrounding the purposes of tax havens”. Does that sound like a balanced and neutral contribution? Remember the Commission’s findings for the wider sector from the Atlantic Bridge case in 2010: “One of the key features of advancing education or promoting research for the public benefit in charity law is that the education or research must not promote a position on a contested issue or area, unless that view is uncontroversial”. In my view, this is what the IEA does all the time.

To my mind, the reason for such frequent transgressions (as I see them) against the guidance is plain from reading the IEA’s website. This explains that the purpose of the IEA as understood by itself is not merely academic or intellectual but is also directed at securing lower taxes, lighter regulation and what they call “freedom” in education and health. It explains that all of its contributors and partners are, explicitly, looking out for ways of shrinking the state. That agenda is of its nature partly political, as defined by the Commission in its guidance on political activity. CC9 says that a charity cannot exist, either wholly or in part, for any purpose “directed at…securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions of central government, local authorities, or other public bodies”, eg the purpose of shrinking or weakening the state in different dimensions of public policy.

Like Widow Twankey, the IEA wears the clothes of an educational charity, but the reality beneath is different: an organisation with a partly political purpose and a controversial, predetermined viewpoint which it seeks to promote with vigorous consistency. This purpose might be good for public debate and pluralism, but it is not charitable.

I am leaving for another time the debate over another aspect of the IEA, which is its untransparent treatment of who funds its work. Its standards of transparency are far below those of many other well known charitable think tanks. The public does not know whether those funding its work might have a personal or financial interest in relation to tobacco, sugar, tax havens, alcoholic drink, and so forth. This is not good for public confidence in the nature of charities’ work as being exclusively for the benefit of the public. There are complex arguments about what could effectively and properly be done about this.

For now, the key question is this. If the IEA consistently breaches the guidance recently reaffirmed in the Legatum case, why should it remain recognised by the Charity Commission as an educational charity? There have been other cases where a charity originally properly registered as an educational charity turned out, in practice, not to act like one. An example is the Atlantic Bridge, registered as a charity in 2003, on which the Commission produced a critical report in 2010, on the grounds for example that “its activities promoted a particular point of view which was not uncontroversial, and were consequently not educational”. Atlantic Bridge was later dissolved by its Trustees.

I have asked Helen Stephenson to consider the issues relating to the IEA afresh, taking full account of the Commission’s conclusions in the Legatum case. It isn’t easy, but the integrity and consistency of the Commission’s guidance on both political activity and the nature of charitable education are precious commodities in a world of polarised, one sided opinions.

The full text of my letter to Helen Stephenson is attached below.

“Dear Helen,

Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA)

The Commission’s recently published conclusions of its case inquiry into the Legatum Institute Foundation provide welcome reconfirmation of the Commission’s guidance on the nature of charitable education for the public benefit. They therefore also shed light on the (to my mind) unresolved issues about whether the IEA is really an educational charity.

This has been the subject of correspondence between me and your predecessor and your colleague [name redacted at request of Charity Commission]. The last in this series is my letter of 8 November 2017, to which I discovered after waiting patiently for five months that I was not going to receive a substantive reply.

The recent ruling on Legatum does, however, emphasise afresh “the necessary balance and neutrality required of an educational charity”. This is crucial to the question of whether the IEA is or should be a charity or not and offers a clear prism through which to review the issues.

You have ruled that having a free trade perspective as a starting point is not in itself a problem with Legatum. Similarly, you have previously made clear that having a free market perspective is not in itself a problem with the IEA. But you go on to say of the Legatum case: “to be consistent with the charity’s object to advance education, a report of this nature (Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity”, 4 November 2017) should make clear that a desired outcome of free trade is only one of a number of the potential political outcomes that might be sought. It should present balanced, neutral evidence and analysis explaining why it has chosen to adopt a free trade perspective over others”. The Legatum report is not in the Commission’s view balanced and neutral in this way, and so you conclude that the report could be seen as promoting a particular political view for the aim of a particular outcome and recommending specific government action that reflects this. You say that “failing to make clear that there are multiple potential Brexit outcomes and that free trade is one of a number of political outcomes, the report is not consistent with the advancement of education for the public benefit.”

Let us now apply this guidance to the work of the IEA.

In the IEA’s case, I do not accept that the real purpose, as defined in practice, is exclusively charitable anyway. The IEA does not merely have a general perspective of favouring the benefits of the free market as an approach to economics. Part of its real purpose as defined on its website is directed at securing lower taxes, lower regulation and what they call “freedom” in education and health, and all its contributors and partners are, they say, explicitly looking for ways of shrinking the state. This falls squarely and unequivocally within CC9‘s definition of “political”, because it includes (in the words of CC9) “securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies.” I have also yet to meet anyone who shares the view put forward by the Commission that this viewpoint is “relatively uncontroversial”. It is highly controversial, as a matter of objective fact. In my opinion, therefore, the purpose of IEA as explained in their own words is clearly partly political and cannot be exclusively charitable. It includes also the purpose of promoting a controversial predetermined conclusion that is inconsistent with your guidance on the nature of charitable education.

It is true that the IEA claims to have no corporate position, but this is undermined by the explanation of purpose as quoted above and by the fact that every report and article is in line with the partly political purpose of shrinking the state. When we hear an IEA staff member joining in public debate, we must assume that person is speaking on behalf of the IEA. When we read on the IEA website that, for example,  “The IEA releases a report debunking the myths surrounding the purposes of tax havens” and again the headline “We have tax havens to thank for rising levels of global prosperity” (6 June 2018) we are bound to assume unless explicitly told otherwise that this is endorsed by or represents the views of the charity. These are not placed in inverted commas by the IEA to suggest they are someone else’s views. There is no disclaimer saying in promotional press releases that these do not necessarily represent the views of the IEA as a charity.

What has changed since our previous correspondence, however, is that even if the predetermined viewpoint of the IEA were not partly political of its nature, (which in my view it clearly is), their work would still fall foul of the fresh clarification of your guidance. Even if the starting point of Legatum is legitimate, you say, a report on a controversial political subject should present balanced, neutral evidence and recognise the variety of possible outcomes that might be sought. Now the status and role of tax havens is a live and controversial political issue, not only in the UK but globally. So is a “report debunking the myths surrounding the purposes of tax havens” (IEA’s words) of a balanced and neutral type to fit the requirements applied to the Legatum case? No, as this description by the IEA makes clear, this is a one-sided debunking exercise.

Similarly, none of the IEA reports mentioned in my previous correspondence makes a serious effort to be balanced and neutral. There is no analysis of possible downsides to recommended policies, nor of other possibly desirable outcomes. Whether the subject is the growth of obesity, the taxation of alcohol, public health policies, taxation, tax havens, Sock Puppets, or solution to the housing crisis, you will not find a neutral and balanced contribution by the IEA, you will find in every case a one-sided and controversial contribution (whether adorned with footnotes or not) aimed at reducing the role of the state.

The IEA also claims that it does not “sell” policy. Well, it publicises these reports vigorously through the media, fields staff to promote and defend them, summarises them without placing the summary in inverted commas and gives no indication to anyone visiting their policy reports and prescriptions section of the website or press releases that these may not represent the views of the charity. If I describe to you the blessings and advantages of a particular Hoover and promote it through social media, in what sense am I not “selling” it?

In my view it is wrong to bend over backwards to argue that all this is consistent with your own guidance on the nature of charitable education. As the Commission’s guidance states, “promoting a specific point of view may be a way of furthering another charitable aim, but it would not be education”.

This is not just a re-hash of previous correspondence. The new factor here is the reaffirmation in the Legatum case of your guidance about charitable education, including the requirement to be neutral and balanced in the way in which an argument or piece of research is developed from what could in principle be a legitimate starting point. The truth is that, using the language you employ in relation to the Legatum ruling, the IEA does not “inform the public in a balanced and neutral way”. Its hallmark is precisely to sponsor and publicise contributions that “are based on selectively presented information that is designed to promote a particular point of view”, namely that the State must be shrunk – a partly political objective.

Like Widow Twankey, the IEA wears the clothes of an educational charity but the reality beneath is different.

The Commission does its best at the time of registration to distinguish between a proper charity and an organisation that should not receive charitable status, but sometimes the way the “charity” interprets its objects and pursues them in practice over time turns out to be non-charitable, and in that case there is no dishonour in the Commission’s revising its assessment accordingly.

I do not agree with the argument that, because there are charitable think tanks with different perspectives, if you move against one they will all fall down like dominoes. I do not accept that my criticisms of the IEA’s charity status apply to most other charitable think tanks. Surely every case should be looked at on its individual merits, to see if it follows the Commission’s guidance on what it means to be an educational charity? Some think tanks are charitable, some are not. Similarly, I do not agree with the sentiment that left wing people criticise the right-wing think-tanks while right wing people criticise the left wing ones, so they cancel each other out and it’s all politically motivated. On the contrary, in the world of politically controversial policy debate, the even handed, consistent application of the Commission’s public guidance is all the more important.

I am refraining from raising again here another aspect of the IEA that causes disquiet, namely the lack of transparency about who is donating funds to pay for their work. This leads to speculation that such donors might have some sort of financial interest in the views promoted by the IEA, which doesn’t help trust and confidence in charities as existing purely for the public benefit. The arguments and counter- arguments about that are an important but separate matter.

I do ask the Commission to reassess the charity status of the IEA in the light of their conclusions and guidance in the Legatum case.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Andrew Purkis.”

 

 

Tina Stowell makes her Debut

The new Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Baroness Tina Stowell, made her first major speech to the NCVO Conference on 16 April. I find it the most interesting and thought-provoking speech made by a Chair of the Charity Commission for some years (though that is not a high bar). She also emphasised that she knows she has much to learn and is anxious to listen. Here are my suggestions of what she may want to listen and learn about particularly carefully as her thinking develops.

The speech contains some excellent passages. Here are my three favourite nuggets:

  1. “So why do people really want more transparency from charities? In my view, their demand for information is a proxy for something far more profound. They want proof that you are who you say you are.” This is original and insightful.
  2. “The public want to be able to trust that, no matter how you slice a charity, what you’ll find is a relentless focus on its charitable purpose. And that means demonstrating that the way charities prioritise, behave and conduct themselves is focussed solely on delivering the right results for the people they say they support.” Hear, hear.
  3. [The Commission needs to] “help make sure charities get it right before things can go wrong. And, make sure they are better equipped to respond in a way that promotes public trust when, sadly, human or systems failings do occur”. This is a relief and pleasure to read, replacing the flawed narrative that the Commission’s “essential” role is to be a policeman.

A second category of passages in the speech is similarly thought-provoking but does not stand up quite so well to careful consideration. For example, Stowell argues that people are less trusting of institutions and of those in positions of authority than they once were “not because our parents and gransparents were more naive [but] because people now have more evidence to prove their suspicions”. An interesting proposition, but a bit shaky. Actually, in some respects I am sure my parents and grandparents were naive, especially on many matters to do with sex and patriarchy. And much of the changes in attitudes are to do with cultural and economic winds of change rather than “evidence”. This matters, since Stowell wants to frame the mission of the Commission in terms of responding to the decline in trust, which therefore should explained with due care.

At another point, Stowell tries to contrast a supermarket, that can keep selling its wares even if its leaders are seen to fail, with charities, that have only their purpose. In fact, however, many charities can and do carry on when their leaders fail in some respect, because their services and other offerings for the benefit of the public continue in much the same way as a supermarket’s. Churches carry on. Universities paying Vice Chancellors gigantic salaries carry on. Oxfam and Save The Children and RNIB will carry on. Their continuing reasons for existence are entirely clear.

We now move into a third category of parts of the speech where to my mind red lights begin to flash. In another doubtful generalisation, she says of failing institutions where people believe their leaders are running them in their own interests: “those institutions have lost sight of their purpose: their purpose which goes beyond money-making or gaining power”. Unfortunately, it is ambiguous as to exactly which institutions she is talking about, but if she were understood to be referring to charities hit by recent scandals she would be preempting the Commission’s own inquiries and quite probably saying something unfair and untrue.

“At its heart,” Stowell argues, “charity is about attitudes, behaviours and qualities that unite us and that we can all sign up to. Qualities such as purpose, conviction, selflessness, generosity”. The problem with this formulation is that although it might just be true at a theoretical and philosophical level, charity as practised by charities only sometimes brings people together, as in a corporation’s “charity day” bringing the workforce together in support of benign charities that everyone supports. In many other cases they can be contentious and divisive, because many charities want to change the world and many other people, other charities and vested interests do not like it. One of the underpinnings of the erroneous notion that campaigning is against the spirit of charity is the quite popular belief that charity should be uncontentious. But in fact, much of the advancement of religion is contentious, the promotion and defence of human rights is contentious, the protection of the environment is contentious, the welfare of animals is contentious, the abolition of slavery was contentious, the assertion of women’s rights and children’s rights is contentious, and so on. Many charitable causes do not unite people, nor should they. Perhaps Baroness Stowell did not intend to say that the pursuit of charitable causes unites people, but the fact is that charity as practised in the real world is about attitudes, behaviours and qualities that often form part of the contention and lively argument that enriches democratic society. It is to be hoped that she will champion this part of charities’ contribution to our society more consistently than her predecessor.

Gareth Jones has already questioned, in Civil Society News, Stowell’s dictum that “the Commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you”. Interesting and thought provoking again! The task of promoting the trust and confidence of the public in charities, and upholding the public interest in charity, cannot, however, be a one way effort of policing, cajoling and helping the charity sector, vital as that is. There should in my opinion also be a dimension of making authoritative contributions to public understanding and debate, from a position of expertise independent of the sector itself and independent of party politics, about the nature and significance of charitable endeavour, why it is in the public interest and how best its contribution may be safeguarded, all informed by the long, historic development of charity law in the Courts and in Parliament. The views of the public are not just a given to be explained to the sector by the Commission. They are a changing, fluid mass of complex feelings and opinions that can be shaped, better informed and educated, not least as part of the Commission’s role.

And, as Gareth Jones pointed out in Civil Society News, if the Commission’s leaders spend too much time and colourful phraseology bemoaning the failings and slumping reputation of the sector, they can run the risk of adding to the damage. To be fair, Stowell has plenty of positive things to say, too, but Gareth’s warning is a fair one.

Stowell is also in potentially treacherous territory basing her framing of the Commission’s mission on research into public trust and confidence. One of the huge difficulties is that most of the sample usually have only the haziest idea of what a charity is, which organisations are charitable and which are not. In the past, the Commission’s research has registered the effects on that part (maybe a third) of the sample that knows least about charities, of the fact that the media has been covering scandals involving charities. Hence, in the wake of the fundraising scandals, research a couple of years’ ago already placed trust in charities on a par with trust in the man or woman in the street, with a partial recovery last year. This research series never showed a time when people generally, as she implies, gave charities the benefit of the doubt; and, in the absence of such evidence, that might be one of those useful straw men. I urge Baroness Stowell to bring all her intellectual rigour to bear on the interpretation and use of this tricky data, not to put too much weight on it, and to take into account other indicators such as the pattern of charitable giving, volunteering, use of charitable services, and support of charitable campaigns, forming a rounded view.

Doing the very best we all can to enhance standards, improve public confidence and above all effectiveness of delivery to beneficiaries does not depend on a movement up or down these imperfect thermometers measuring public trust, nor on countering scandals affecting particular parts of such a varied sector from time to time. The mission is long term and permanent. Good luck to Tina Stowell and the Commission as they take this mission on to the next stage.

Her debut may be a mixed bag, but things are looking up when a speech like this is genuinely interesting, provokes hard thinking and provides at least a few nuggets of gold.

The Stowell Candidacy and the Public Interest

In a series of helpful tweets by Julia Unwin, who was on the Panel recommending Baroness Stowell as preferred candidate as Chair of the Charity Commission, she affirmed that there had been a rigorous process and that Stowell had given an excellent interview and received unanimous support from the Panel as the best candidate. Unwin received a cool response from Baroness Glenys Thornton, Shadow Health Minister in the Lords:

“It really is not seen to be an independent person you have appointed. Perception is important”.

Baroness Thornton has hit the nail on the head, leaving us all in the sector and beyond in a quandary.

Before continuing, and for the sake of complete transparency, I disclose that I applied for the post myself and was not shortlisted. I make no complaint; though I believed in my application, I could give you some good reasons for preferring others, and I have learned over the years that when one door closes, others open. But if you think that anything that I say on this subject is bound to be contaminated by sour grapes, please stop reading now.

For those still reading, it is ironical that over the years NCVO has taken the lead in insisting that perception (not necessarily reality) of party political bias is detrimental to the work and effectiveness of the Charity Commission. That was the core reason for their 2015 proposals for reform of the appointments system. Now they are saying that we should accept and welcome Baroness Stowell as Chair but continue to seek reform of the process. But right now the issue is whether or not to welcome, accept or resist the appointment of this particular candidate, in the light of Baroness Thornton’s irrefutable objection.

As NCVO has explained so well, perception of party political bias is a destructive force, blighting the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Commission. Suzi Leather will I am sure have given a wonderful interview to her Panel and has brilliant gifts, but her tenure as Chair was compromised in key respects by the fact that she was a Labour Party member and perceived to be close to the Labour Government. William Shawcross is also found by many to be a thoroughly good egg and a person of courtesy and integrity, but his perceived closeness to Conservative circles, his vocal hostility to the Labour Party in recent publications and the fact that he was only supported by a slim majority of the Select Committee split on party lines cast a shadow over his effectiveness. History therefore tells us not to place unlimited faith in a successful interview before a public appointments panel of excellent people like Julia.

After all, Suzi Leather was a mere Party member. William Shawcross, too, had never had a formal Conservative Party role nor been a member. But Baroness Stowell has worked in the engine room of the Conservative Party Leader and has herself recently actually led the Conservatives in the House of Lords. In my view, confirmed by Glenys Thornton, it is simply impossible to see that such a person can ever be perceived to be “demonstrably independent”, however professional and dispassionate she may well be in person, just as Suzi Leather was (as I know from personal experience) and just as I gather that William Shawcross was too. So we are now asked to welcome someone with a far more conspicuous and unambiguous party political background than any other Charity Commission Chair in history. Each time Baroness Stowell sits down as Chair of Charity Commission, a very large elephant will sit down beside her.

On her other side will sit a slightly smaller elephant. This is the unanimous verdict of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, led by its Conservative Chair, that they could not support her candidature. Only one of these reasons was the party political perception problem. Another was the very sparse knowledge and experience she was able to demonstrate of the charity sector. With our experience of the Shawcross years, and the continuing relative scarcity of people on  the Board with significant charity sector experience, this too is a non-trivial obstacle. Another was what the Committee unanimously felt was an unconvincing performance in answering their respectful and pertinent questioning. Everyone will for ever know that she was unable to convince even one member of the Committee to support her. What a dreadful way to start a public appointment.

Some including Julia Unwin have said how suspicious they are of politicians second-guessing the decisions of an independent Panel and rigorous process. But there are two sound  reasons why the Select Committee is assigned a role in the process. Firstly, the Commission is accountable to Parliament, not the Government of the day. Parliament, yes, politicians, across party lines, represent the public interest in a flourishing charity sector. The Commission is a non Ministerial public body, independent of the Government of the day. That is why NCVO assigned to Parliament  in their 2015 reform proposals a much more important role to a cross Party Parliamentary Committee than the one it has today. So Parliament’s considered view really matters.

Secondly, politicians may be more attuned to the issue of party political perceptions than the non-political Panel members. They may understand best how politically loaded the role of the Commission is: think of public schools, political campaigning, whether think tanks are charities, whether a particular religion is charitable, whether a charity infringes party political neutrality, and so on. They may understand that someone who has had such high profile party political roles has a mountain too steep and difficult to climb. Politicians have their own expertise in this crucial dimension, which is not to be pooh-poohed. And if there is a role for a Select Committee in the process for good reasons, Ministers should not carry on as if its careful inquiry had never happened.

My simple conclusion, disentangling these core issues from the fake news about the Panel’s views that was also circulating before being corrected by Julia Unwin,  is that this appointment is wrong. Each umbrella body, each charity, each person who treasures the public interest in the charity sector and wants it regulated in the most effective way possible should now ask themselves: do we keep tactical silence? Do we pretend to ignore the two elephants accompanying the preferred candidate as she enters the Commission offices in Petty France? Do we hope that the candidate will withdraw? Depending on your role, it is a quandary. But it is not the characteristic of most of civil society to go along too quietly with something that affects them and their causes deeply and which they believe to be wrong.

If the Charity Commission asks for your charity’s money, here are some relevant Trustees’ duties

Trustees should look at all proposals for spending their money – including proposals from the Charity Commission itself – in accordance with the duties of Trustees as set out by the Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission’s Chief Executive has made clear that the Commission intends to consult the sector about a levy on larger charities to pay for some of the softer side of regulation such as advice and, according to Civil Society News, for enabling schemes and permissions. A figure of £7 million per year has been mentioned.

I have challenged the rationale for this proposal elsewhere (“Should Charities Pay for Charity Commission’s advice?”, 13 January 2018, and “Paying for the Regulator: why the charity sector is not like all the others”, 2 August 2017. ). I now want to remind Trustees – in particular those of larger charities who would pay the levy – of relevant guidance from the Commission about their duties as they consider their response. It is all taken from The Essential Trustee.

“You and your co-trustees must make sure the charity is carrying out the purposes for which is is set up, and no other purposes.” (my italics).   So if someone asks you to fund a different purpose, however admirable, which is not part of your charitable objects and does not advance or support them, you must say no. Expenditure which does not meet these criteria would be a breach of your Trustee duties.

“You must make sure the charity’s assets are only used to support or carry out its purposes”. Hence it is not permissible to choose to spend part of your assets on something that does not support or carry out your purposes. Even more pointedly:

“You must do what you and your co-trustees (and no-one else) decide will best enable the charity to carry out its purposes” (my italics). So if there is in the view of your Board, and no-one else, a better way of spending the money for the long term good of your cause, you should not willingly spend it on a worse option.

These are some of the key considerations which Trustees “must” (not just should) have in mind, according to the Commission. They subsume issues of trust and obligation when it comes to donors who give their money for a particular charitable purpose. You have to be able to look into their eyes and tell them that you are using their donations for your chosen cause in the best way you can.

You will want to address the argument that, if the Commission is better able to do preventive work, the reputation of charity in general, including your charity, will be better protected.

So, for example, if you are a Trustee of a major children’s organisation, is a levy to the Charity Commission clearly a means of supporting your mission to children? More than that, is it the best available way of spending that money for that purpose? The same question applies to the cancer charities, those for disabled people, overseas aid, medical, Arts, museums, the environment, human rights and all the rest. Your duties are to pursue your charitable objectives exclusively, not other charities’ purposes nor the regulator’s purposes nor any political purpose unless it is in support of your own particular charitable objects.

For many years, regulation has been correctly understood as a balanced mix of preventive, awareness raising and corrective activity. Such regulation has been seen as for the benefit of society as a whole, and hence a claim on the public purse.

It is only relatively recently that the Commission’s Board under William Shawcross colluded with the simplistic notion that the “essential” role of the Commission was to be a “policeman”, setting up the scenario where Government says it will pay only for compliance and investigation. It is also only relatively recently that the budget of the Commission has been slashed as part of austerity economics. Despite that, the relevant Government Department (DCMS) now spends many multiples of £7 million on the National Citizenship Service which has not done too well at the hands of the National Audit Office, but says it cannot find an extra £7 million for the better regulation of the entire charity sector. This is just one example of priorities for the public purse that are open to challenge.

Trustees must ask themselves if these are immutable and permanent facts of life, or whether they might change. They should also ask whether, if they were to declare their charities willing to pay for some of the Commission’s regulation, these “facts” would indeed become immutable and permanent even if they were not so before.

Many Trustees of large charities will remember life not so long ago, when the Charity Commission’s budget was roughly twice its present size of £20 million. Was this so much better and so important to the effective pursuit of their charity’s purposes that it justifies the expenditure of some of their own charitable funds now, as a priority, in order to enable the Commission to do some of what it was previously paid to do via public expenditure? Much of this advice, these permissions and schemes will apply to a myriad of charities with completely different purposes, geographical scope and beneficiary groups from theirs. It may be an excellent purpose to provide such advice but is it their charitable purpose to pay for it?

The duties of Trustees as defined above by the Commission will require some careful, clear and tough analysis by the Trustees if the proposal that their charitable funds should pay for advice work by the Commission is embraced by the new Chair of the Commission and finally goes out to consultation.

Should charities pay for the Commission’s advice?

The Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, Helen Stephenson, is reported in Civil Society News of 10 January as suggesting that the sector itself should pay for advice to the sector and for the Commission’s enabling work, including the low level permissions and schemes which the regulator is also responsible for.

She believes that the Government should fund the regulator’s compliance and investigative work, which prevents wrongdoing. But advice and enabling are in her view another matter.

I struggle to see the logic of this. The purpose of advice and many aspects of enabling work by the Commission is precisely to make reputational damage and wrongdoing less likely, and encourage good practice that encourages public trust and confidence – the purpose entrusted to the Commission by Parliament. Prevention is much better than expensive corrective action when things go wrong. How unwise, therefore, to identify expensive corrective action as the right route for public funding rather than prevention and positive action to preempt problems.

It seems no more sensible than suggesting that no taxpayers’ money should be spent on public health programmes and preventive health, so that it is all spent instead on treating illnesses once they occur. Or that we should spend no taxpayers’ money on supporting families, preferring to spend far more on picking up the pieces when families implode.

Previously, Helen Stephenson was understood to be talking about a levy on large charities. That has its own problems. Why would large charities want to pay for all sorts of advice and enabling for charities and causes different from their own and  for which their money was not given? Why should a cancer charity and its donors pay for a local scheme to regulate a piece of land or a permission relating to a village hall? (Let alone whether they would want to pay for the sort of finger wagging “advice” they were getting from William Shawcross and other Board members?}

But perhaps the reference to “low level permissions” indicates an intention to propose charges for particular services, in addition to or instead of a levy on large charities? In that case, a lot depends on the justice and likely consequences of imposing such charges. For example, how many prospective or existing charities would be put off doing what would be best for them and for the reputation of charities in general? or discouraged from bothering with permissions of which they do not really understand the benefit anyway? Stop Press: I have just been told by the author of the Civil Society News report that it is a levy, and not individual charges, that the Commission has in mind at present.

In addition, such a levy will be seen (not least in the light of William Shawcross’s publicly expressed views) as the thin edge of a wedge that could in principle see all advice, guidance and assistance to prospective and existing charities as to be paid for. And then, in the end, how about some investigative functions, too? And what is the long term effect of incremental charging for what, historically, Parliament has seen as a valid (and really rather small) claim on public funds because it has wanted to encourage and promote charitable causes in the public interest?

The Commission’s frustration with its inadequate budget is thoroughly understandable. But a long term perspective is best. Artificial and illogical distinctions between compliance and preventive aspects of good regulation will not stand up to analysis. There is good reason to fear the thin end of a wedge. And if the Commission is to depend on the Government of the day for most of its funding anyway, the best arguments for a comprehensively different sort of funding that will produce a more independent Commission are undermined.

The Commission’s efforts to soften up the sector for a debate on a levy or charging are not going at all well. The new Chair, when he or she is chosen and assumes office, would be well advised to hit the Pause button and have a really careful think.

 

 

Three Cheers for Vicky Browning. Fight the DCMS gagging clause.

Here we go again. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now the lead Department for civil society, has defended a gagging clause in its Tampon Tax grants programme preventing the money being used for advocacy, awareness raising or campaigning of any kind. Yet this is a grants programme aimed at tackling violence against women and girls, supporting mental health and well being, and reducing drug and alcohol abuse!

Three hearty cheers for ACEVO’s chief executive, Vicki Browning, for demanding the withdrawal of this clause. She explains that awareness-raising and advocacy must be intermingled with practical work when it comes to addressing sensibly these sorts of issues. They thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear behind closed doors. They thrive on ignorance. The voices and experiences of sufferers is an essential ingredient if state agencies and the public are to deal with these matters more successfully. This is completely lost on the hapless spokesperson for DCMS who says:

We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ money goes to help good causes and is not used for political lobbying and campaigning”. In a moment of pure farce, the passage in the grant guidelines encouraging applicants to engage in awareness-raising as part of tackling Violence Against Women and Girls is, it turns out, a “mistake” and is going to be withdrawn! The official who included awareness raising as an integral part of the good cause of tackling violence against women and girls was, however, 100 per cent correct and it is the ideologues of gagging who are making the mistake.

It is pure nonsense to suggest that taxpayers’ money does not or should not go to influencing, advocacy and awareness raising in pursuit of Government policy. Many millions of pounds went from DFID under Justine Greening to integrated programmes of work to combat violence against women and enhance women’s rights and opportunities, making her and DFID world leaders and a great force for good. Such work continues. The new Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, is particularly keen to expand work in support of disabled people in developoing countries. I am quite sure she will understand that this includes amplifying the voices of disabled people and giving them greater agency and control in influencing the way they are treated by state agencies and others. We shall surely not be returning to the patronising top down charity of Dickensian times where the beneficiary simpers with gratitude and says nothing?

In another Department, Health,  it has long been understood that public health policies are often better promoted by independent charities than by the Man in Whitehall alone. Taxpayers’ money rightly flows via the NHS and via grants to charities into awareness raising of all sorts of diseases and health hazards. It would indeed be rather stupid to say that the only legitimate use of taxpayers’ money is to treat the symptoms and suffering after prevention has failed.

Domestic violence and tackling modern forms of slavery have been causes with which the Prime Minister herself has been very closely associated. In that work she knows very well how vital is the experience and knowledge of actual sufferers, brought to bear on policy and practice alike through the expert testimony of the organisations that work with them. To deny voice and awareness-raising is to impoverish policy and degrade the Government’s admirable efforts to change things for the better.

Setting up a false antithesis between “good works” on the one hand and “political lobbying and campaigning” on the other may be good enough for inexperienced SPADS but not for grown up people in Government, who know that awareness, voice, influencing the decisions and practices of the Police, prison service, social workers, and adjusting the policy frameworks in which they work, is all a fundamental part of tackling the horrible violence, mental suffering and abuse that goes on behind too many closed doors.

The narrow ideology of the gaggers is harmful, the enemy of good policy and the vital role of charities in helping to shape collective decisions and give voice to the excluded.

Vicki, please keep going. DCMS: please think again and do the right thing.

Ethics, Values and Campaigning: a Reflection

Is it ethics and values that motivate campaigning for a cause? What is the difference between believing that our cause is right, and being self-righteous? What part do ethics and values play in the way in which we pursue our cause, as well as the cause itself? Should civility be a core value of civil society? Is it ethical for a charity campaign to be motivated partly by the need for money and supporters?

If these questions interest you, read on!

  1. A few days’ ago I was lucky enough to be in a group considering this topic in the appropriate surroundings of the Friends’ Meeting House, Euston. We had been brought together by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s excellent Social Change Project, whose contact details are given below. Here are reflections that I have taken away.
  2. Is it ethics and values that motivate campaigning for a cause? They are a precondition but not sufficient by themselves. Some people who share much the same ethics and values as activists may be into service delvery, watch a lot of TV, or be absorbed in study or family instead. Others may end up campaigning for different, even conflicting things. For example, the two sides in the dignity in dying debate may share important values but have systems of beliefs and experience built on them that lead them to contrasting views about the best path to long term human flourishing. Others again may have quite different priorities: one person who campaigns on children’s rights can have broadly the same ethics and values as another who is preoccupied with environmental degradation. So anyone who says “I campaign for this cause because of my ethics and values” is saying something partly true but incomplete. Your experience of pain and joy, role models, religion (or lack of it), beliefs about what will change the world for the better and how best to achieve it, and subjective enthusiasms, all play their part, too.
  3. Similarly, believing passionately that our cause is right is not the same as being self-righteous. Our opponents are human beings who disagree with us but may well share many of our ethics and values. They may be just as well motivated as we are. They may have more experience than we do in some ways and understand considerations that we ignore in our own ways of thinking (which may sometimes be group think). We cannot assume that they are morally inferior. Too many of us campaigners, however, do sometimes fall into self-righteousness. If we do, we help justify the hostility of our opponents.
  4. Yet a clear sense of ethics and values, explicitly defined and publicly stated, is an important anchorage for campaigning organisations, as for others.
  5. For otherwise, there is no standard of behaviour against which the organisation as a whole and individuals within it can be held accountable. The history of campaigning includes examples where an ostensibly “successful” campaigner has left a trail of humiliated or angry colleagues and supporting staff because, fixated on the moral end, he or she has behaved badly to actual human beings in the same cause. We are only too conscious of this trap in the post Harvey Weinstein era. Explicit ethics and values help to align the public cause with organisational culture and personal behaviour.
  6. Equally, they help guard against a discrepancy between means and ends. If, for example, we contravene our stated beliefs in truthfulness and fairness, our causes will be vulnerable to being discredited. If we misrepresent or dehumanise our opponents, we invite them to do the same back to us and to others. Do we manipulate statistics, oversimplify what we know to be complex, cherry pick evidence that supports our message and ignore what does not? This is particularly important in the era of fake news, alternative facts and the coarsening of public discourse in rival social media echo chambers. If we lower our ethics and values to compete like with like, we shall lose out to the most ruthless and unprincipled.
  7. This is very difficult, because we want our communications to grab attention in a crowd. We need money. We may want to motivate our supporters and recruit new ones by engaging their emotions. We cannot bury our appeals in pedantic qualifications. But there is no good alternative to working hard for impact within a robust framework of ethics and values. The charity sector has learned this the hard way through the fundraising scandals, where excellent ends were let down by unethical means.
  8. The group pondered the helpful question posed a while ago by Karl Wilding of the NCVO: should one core value of civil society be civility itself? Is it realistic to deplore and excoriate the behaviour of institutions, such as predatory Corporations that commit environmental or human rights abuses, without assuming that the human beings working in them are inhumane and unethical as individuals? Is it ever justified to abuse and curse our opponents or political leaders as individuals as part of expressing the anger that drives many of our campaigns? Is it naïve to aim to be always civil, however passionately we believe in the rightness of our cause, particularly if we feel we are fighting a “war”? These deserve careful reflection as we define the shared ethics and values underpinning our organisations and campaigns.
  9. One other issue caused us some difficulties. There are particular ethical issues surrounding the role of campaigns on the part of medium and large charities. This is because such campaigns sometimes have mixed motives. They are partly trying to do what it says on the tin, such as (for example) bring about a better deal for some oppressed group, but at the same time they are trying to recruit new supporters and raise money in order to fill the charity’s tin. It is partly about sustaining a business model for the organisation and its wider cause as well as about the specific campaign. Fundraising and brand considerations, as well as policy analysis of need and impact, will be brought to bear on the choice of campaign. And in some cases, when the fundraisers and brand experts say so, one campaign will be dropped after two or three years, because another is needed to sustain the brand and the finances even if the previous one is unfinished. This all has its good side if it makes great organisations sustainable while promoting their cause in different dimensions, but the risks of lack of transparency, or causing cynicism about the motivations of campaigns, are there, and need managing in the light of the charity’s statement of ethics and values.
  10.  Similarly, for a wider range of campaigning charities, if I make a gift aided donation to a particular urgent campaign appeal, is it transparent enough to me if the gift aid goes not to the campaign but to the general running costs of the organisation (as it sometimes does)? This is another set of issues where what is right and in the best interests of the cause is not always straightforward and where a statement of ethics and sturdy values can be an essential compass
  11. If you would like to follow or contribute to The Social Change Project’s developing thinking on these questions – and other aspects of changing the world through non-party political activity – please go to their website at http://smk.org.uk/social-change-project/ .

 

 

Andrew Purkis.                                                                  November 2017.