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Transparency and trustworthiness are not the same thing

Apparently there’s some sort of teacake and dog festival starting in Scotland this week – but the big north of the border event as far as I’m concerned has been the publication of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator’s annual report.

The most significant announcement in the report is the news that the OSCR will start publishing charities’ accounts on its website at some point soon, pending a slightly knotty legal issue parliament will need to sort out through legislation.

While the website of the Charity Commission already freely and easily gives access to the last five years of accounts for English and Welsh charities, the same doesn’t happen in Scotland.

Online publication of accounts would contribute to the regulator’s goal of “charities you can trust and that provide public benefit”, the OSCR’s report says. Separately, David Robb, the chief executive of the OSCR, told me that the new policy “is supported by our recent stakeholder surveys, which showed that public confidence is encouraged by transparency”.

My question is: how? This doesn’t actually provide evidence or tell us the way in which publishing accounts will increase trust. The fear, of course, is that having more information out there in the public domain makes you vulnerable to bad headlines, or members of the public mistrusting what they don’t understand. A member of the public who comes across something they don’t understand on p27 of your annual accounts is surely more likely to decide it must be something fishy than they are to email your FD for an explanation. Transparency, while it is so often seen as an inherently good thing in and of itself, is not a synonym of trustworthiness.

Another clue as to why the OSCR has come out with this policy is that, as it notes in its report, the Charity Commission already does it. All very well, but I wonder how far the fact of what is done in London will go in explaining broader policy decisions of the OSCR, or the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, or two recently announced regulators – the Charity Commissioner for Jersey, or the Charities Regulatory Authority in the Republic of Ireland. With the amount of flack the commission gets, is it the best role model?

These concerns aside, it is still worth celebrating the fact that the Charity Commission, and therefore the third sector, is ahead of the game here. Trying to get the annual reports of a private company from Companies House is a mini-minefield, with a very user-unfriendly website and online system to navigate and a fee of £1 for each document you want to read. That said, Companies House did announce last week that it was going to overhaul its system and get rid of that charge – so we won’t be in the ascendancy for long.

What, then, is the commission’s next move? Ten years of accounts to be made publicly available? Every annual account ever? With infinite space for documents on the cybersphere, there is a never-ending scope for more information to be put out to the masses.

Hurd leaves a long relationship

When Nick Hurd was introduced as the longest-serving charities minister
at a reception at the Institute of Fundraising convention last week, he muttered something enigmatic about how much longer it would last. Whether under pressure or otherwise, it seems likely he had already knew by then that he would be going.

Tired and emotional at the IoF convention

Another year, another Institute of Fundraising National Convention. Although for me, it was actually my first. I’m reliably informed by colleagues though that the emotive presentations, back-slapping of IoF board appointees old and new (and fundraisers in general) and appearance of celebrities last seen in the 1990s (Ruby Wax, Loyd Grossman) that took place over the three-day event was fairly typical convention protocol.

Is the regulator’s bread-and-butter approach working?

This might not be the most surprising of revelations, but I must say that yesterday’s Charity Commission public meeting in Manchester didn’t really get my pulse racing.

For the most part it was an afternoon of bread-and-butter stuff – literally so in the case of the first item on the agenda, a sandwich lunch. There followed an introduction from William Shawcross, in which the regulator’s chairman returned to what is rapidly becoming his trademark refrain of “we are not the Stasi”. He was followed by three officials outlining trustee responsibilities across three areas: conflicts of interest, safeguarding and fraud prevention, and campaigning.

Bad news might be better than you think

Here are three headlines that you didn’t read on ThirdSector.co.uk in recent weeks: ‘Police take swift and appropriate action after charity discovers serious crime’; ‘Charity Commission steps in to stop abuse of charitable assets and sector’s reputation’; and finally ‘Researcher reveals issue charities must understand in order to improve its standing’.

You might, however, have comes across the headlines ‘RNLI employee arrested on suspicion of fraud’, ‘Muslim Aid one of thirteen charities named as subjects of statutory inquiries’ and ‘Nearly half of business leaders ‘concerned about professionalism of charity heads’.

The irritations of online giving

A squabble between a charity and an online giving site last week aptly demonstrates the nervousness that many charities feel in the wake of the collapse of the CharityGiving site last year.

The row – in which the two parties squared up through the media (i.e. me) – took place after George Overton of the children’s charity HCPT The Pilgrimage Trust, aired his grievances about a site called Giveall.org in a comment on the Third Sector website.

Tea with Simon Cowell, and why the Health Lottery is no bad thing

Simon Cowell asked me to go to tea with him this week. Actually that’s only partially true: more accurately, I was invited by a PR person to a rather civilised afternoon tea hosted by the TV talent guru and the media mogul Richard Desmond to celebrate the Health Lottery.

The lottery, which manages 51 society lotteries across Great Britain, has ruffled some sector feathers since it was set up in 2011, but it has also raised £50m for charities, CICs and other organisations working to combat health inequality. That’s good going: of course only a nasty cynic would point out that Desmond, who launched the game, had said it would raise £50m in year one alone.

Who’s offering what, and to whom?

“What is your big offer?” Sir Stephen Bubb, head of charity leaders body Acevo, asked charities minister Nick Hurd at last week’s Gathering of Social Leaders.

The speech that followed did not have any ‘big offer’ to woo the sector. Nor did the subsequent addresses by Lisa Nandy, Hurd’s shadow. Nor that of final speaker Jon Cruddas, the shadow cabinet office minister.

Late filing: excuses, excuses…

The Charity Commission’s class inquiry into ‘double defaulters’, charities who have failed to submit their annual accounts two or more times in the last five years, rumbles on.

Various reasons were given by the dozen charities whose non-compliant behaviour has been outlined in the reports released so far, in three batches of four; the first in January , the next in March, the most recent last week. And, albeit from a relatively small sample size, a pattern begins to emerge.

Paula Sussex and the bed of nails

The Charity Commission offered the job of chief executive to Paula Sussex at the end of February, and finally got around to announcing it yesterday. The delay is officially explained as “normal processes of appointment and resignation.” Being translated, this tends to mean various kinds of horse-trading, to-ing and fro-ing with the Cabinet Office, and sorting out the details of what is known these days as “the package”. Public appointments always seem to be delayed and long drawn-out these days; but at least we’ve finally got there.