In June, Charity Commission chair William Shawcross said that the charity sector was in a crisis after the outcry over fundraising that followed the death of Olive Cooke.
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Like many in the sector, I was surprised and pleased by the response of Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society, to The Sun’s story criticising pay at the charity last week. Instead of doing what so many charities do and burying his head in the sand the moment a negative news story emerged, Hughes was keen to defend his charity’s practices.
Every day, goes the hackneyed phrase, you learn something new. Yesterday was a particularly successful day: I learnt two new things, both from the Charity Commission-commissioned report Trust and Confidence in the Charity Commission. First, most of the 1,001 members of the public surveyed think that charities should at least partly fund the commission, and, second, that an even greater proportion of the public has not only read through the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, but approves of its contents.
I’ll admit to having made a heavy assumption in coming to the latter conclusion – but then again so did the commission. What the report shows is that 83 per cent of the public support the regulator being able to ban people with certain criminal convictions from trusteeship and to shut down charities after inquiries into misconduct or mismanagement – that is to say, two of the 12 powers for the commission contained in the bill.
The commission’s press release reacting to the report paints a rather different picture: its headline claiming it showed the public “overwhelmingly support new powers for the Charity Commission” was a particularly puzzling conclusion given that only 47 per cent of survey respondents said they had even heard of the commission – although 88 per cent agreed that its role was an important one, and 65 per cent said they thought charities were effectively regulated. The report itself went further and described the support as “universal.” Might I suggest a more appropriate headline: “Public wants two new powers for important thing they don’t know existed.”
Short of the government being about to announce that all charity law will be crowdsourced from now on, I’m not entirely sure why the commission felt the need to use this report to press its case for getting these new powers so strongly. What if the public had decided they didn’t think the new powers were a good idea – would the bill have been scrapped immediately? The powers clearly have strong government support and are generally regarded as uncontroversial and enjoying cross-party support.
Separately, I’m also unsure how relevant it is to policymakers that 75 per cent of the public think the commission should be partly or fully funded by charities, but what I am relatively convinced of that it is only a matter of time before this happens.
The commission is clearly keen on the idea, and has pointed out that various other regulators do this, but charities are far less convinced: only 23 per cent of the 1,129 charities surveyed said they would be happy to pay any or all of the commission’s bills.
How might such a system work? Companies House charges £13 for online filing of annual documents – if the 164,000 registered charities all paid this each year, the commission’s coffers would be boosted by £2.1m, or a healthy 10 per cent of its total budget. Another possibility is charging for registration – although with fewer than 5,000 new registrations last year, this would not seem likely to yield much income. The commission suggested last year that fees would only be charged to charities above a certain size, but given the bottom-heavy nature of the sector, this also substantially cuts down the number of contributors. There is also the possibility of charging fines to charities who fail to submit their annual accounts or are found guilty of some kind of misconduct – but again this will be relatively few charities, and there seems something of a conflict of interest in the body responsible for ensuring charities meet their legal requirements standing to gain financially from charities failing to do so.
A Companies House-style list of charges, which range from £8 for a name change to £100 for same-day registration, does not seem entirely unreasonable, but, whatever happens, it seems clear that charities will protest – although people are rarely happy when they start having to pay for a previously complimentary service. The commission will have to win over charities’ hearts and minds in order to make this change happen smoothly, and in order to do so it must directly show why charging charities will result in a better service, and be of benefit to charities’ beneficiaries.
That said, it is not immediately obvious from the survey that charities think the commission needs to get better. Of the 1,129 charities surveyed, 92 per cent were supportive of the two new commission powers, and they were also asked to rate out of 10 how much trust and confidence they had in commission. The result – 8.25 – hardly hints at prevailing narrative of a regulator in crisis. I think the commission should be congratulated for achieving that score, but then again that’s just my opinion, so it’s probably not worth anything until you ask a further 1,000 members of the public what they think.
Sam Burne James is a senior reporter at Third Sector
It looks increasingly likely that the Conservatives will ditch their pre-election pledge to allow staff in larger companies and the public sector to take three days of paid volunteering leave.
I spent Monday at the National Council for Voluntary Organisation’s Evolve 2015 conference and subsequent dinner. Alongside hearing that fundraising self-regulation was “not working in its current form” and that the Tories’ pledge to create a three-day volunteering leave requirement for larger companies “won’t be happening”, here are a few things that got me thinking:
“Mummy, am I going to die?” As the mother of two small children it’s a particularly heart-wrenching plea from Children With Cancer UK that I’m currently faced with on my regular commute. I’m told that if I text SAVE to 70007 my donation of £3 could save Ella’s life.
It’s not often I hear much about charities’ fundraising mistakes. Ask fundraising heads about their successes and they’ll talk to you for hours, but their responses are likely to slow down, falter or possibly stop altogether once the conversation turns to their mishaps. Complaints? No, not many. Money wasted? Not really. Regrets? Never!
The UK’s third sector is a complex beast. Alongside registered charities – and their excepted and exempted counterparts – community interest companies are becoming a prominent sub-sector, while social enterprise in its broad form is also on the rise and the rules around cooperative and community benefit societies (also known as bencoms) have recently evolved.
It wasn’t the Brethren wot won it, but then what did they stand to lose?
After an unexpected Conservative election victory in 1992, The Sun famously claimed that it was they “wot won it”.
Most of the recent rhetoric about charities being too political has been about challenges to the Conservative-led government: think of the row about the Oxfam tweet and criticism of charities by ministers including Chris Grayling and Eric Pickles. So it’s ironic that the first instances to come to light in the election campaign concern four charities that added their name to The Daily Telegraph’s front page plea to vote Conservative. The Charity Commission is asking them to “remedy the situation swiftly.”