Charity Commission strategy misses the point

The Charity Commission launched its new strategy last month, with a speech from its chair, Baroness Stowell, and five strategic objectives – starting with holding charities to account and dealing with wrongdoing and harm.

There is much in the strategy to welcome. The Commission has a clear purpose – ‘to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society’ – it clarifies its audiences (‘the public we serve, the staff we employ, the charities we regulate [and] the Parliament we answer to’), and in recognising that ‘regulation is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself’, the Commission describes a need to articulate its role differently in future. Two elements of the strategy are particularly welcome: giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed and keeping charity relevant for today’s world.

The strategy, and particularly the subsequent speech, suggest that a charity should not be judged only on achievements, it’s also about ‘the behaviour they display along the way’. And this is important – charities should act ethically, show integrity, and be guided by values. It’s important because it is the right thing to do, but also because, for most charities, it will be the most effective way to achieve their mission, to deliver their services, and create the change they want.

Stowell also suggests that this behaviour must reflect how the public think charities should behave. But, whilst the Commission may be beholden to the public, charities are not – they exist to achieve their mission, for their stakeholders. Large chunks of public opinion does not chime with the needs of the most vulnerable (think asylum seekers or recipients of state benefits). Charities should listen to all of their stakeholders, but when it comes to behaviour, ‘public’ opinion must take its rightful place at the end of a long list which includes staff, supporters, possibly members, and, of course, at the very front of the queue, beneficiaries.

Stowell’s speech appears framed by a clear set of views about charities, summarised as many have no values and have been too business-like in recent times. She says that charities need a culture change so that ‘whatever else your organisation may be, the people involved never forget that it is a charity’, and suggests that charities need to ‘take steps now to promote what is special about charity’ or risk being complicit in its decline.

Whilst it is tempting to describe these views as confused, this would be unfair; they are just plain wrong. People who work in charities typically demonstrate much sounder values than the general public – they treat people well, and are desperate to help those in need.  Where charities are badly run, it is typically due to a lack of business acumen rather than too much of it. (There are obviously exceptions, and some high profile ones at that, but that’s exactly what they are – exceptions). Charities have no responsibility to spend time remembering that they are a charity, but they must spend their time improving life for their beneficiaries. That is the priority – and it is on this point, not behaving how the public expect, that the Commission should be holding charities to account.

Stowell portrays an old-fashioned concept of charity, distant from the needs of those people most registered charities are there to serve. She wants charities to be prudent and ‘to avoid extravagance, complacency and the appearance of self-interest’ but there is no mention of brave, loud, innovative, important, challenging, and different – the characteristics which annoy some members of the public, but which actually change lives for the better. Avoiding extravagance changes nothing.

Perhaps Stowell is right, and the concept of registered charities will decline in future years. But maybe that’s no bad thing. The charity ‘sector’ is a hotchpotch of 155,000 organisations related primarily by registration numbers and shared tax breaks. I wouldn’t want to work for any organisation that cared more about its charitable status than its mission. The Commission is clear that regulation is not an end in itself; neither, of course, is being a registered charity.