Thursday 11 June 2015

No, we ain’t in crisis!

The Chair of the Charity Commission said in a speech this week that the sector is in ‘crisis’. 

This is very disappointing. I would expect the charity regulator to rise above the noise of the tabloids, and make the public case for charities’ work. Their speeches should extol the importance of charities and the vital contribution we make. They should be telling people what they are doing to help us with the work we do.

Firm regulation is a part of the Charity Commission’s and its chair’s job. But just as important is their job to speak out for and support the organisations they regulate. At the very least, they should be leading the public debate, not following the lead set by lurid coverage in the press.

I certainly don’t think it is the Chair of the Charity Commission’s job to court national controversy for the sector he is mandated to support.

Yes, charities should be reviewing our fundraising practices. We are doing so right now, as is the Fundraising Standards Board. Yes, we should highlight the importance of charities’ work being done professionally. But to call the recent news reports “a crisis for the charity sector which is testing the strength and capacity of self-regulation”? That is not true. And it merely makes another lurid headline.

In another part of the speech, the Chair Mr Shawcross talked about the possibility of the Charity Commission charging charities to be regulated. I am not certain that a compulsory charge is really in the best interests of a free and fair society, especially when there are questions about the quality of that regulator’s contribution to the national debate. Even beyond this, I remain sceptical. In a recent ACEVO survey, 75% of our membership were against charging for regulation.

His speech also talked about the Commission’s continued provision of support and advice to charities, arguing that this function is continuing to be provided despite budget cuts and the Commission focusing more and more of its resources purely on ‘hard’ enforcement. Still, this isn’t enough to win the argument on paying to be regulated, if charities do not get many services in return.

The Charity Commission does have a huge task. Staff are obviously overburdened. The Chair is right to be concerned about the Commission's total reliance on government funding. But then why make work for yourself? The Commission appear determined to do a wasteful and unnecessary review of CC9, the guidance on charity campaigning, simply for declarative purposes it seems. By far the most likely outcome of such a review would be to curtail our duties to campaign on behalf of our beneficiaries. They claim this is about regulating social media, but given the difficulty of ‘regulating’ that it seems to me better to approach it through separate, short guidance that outlines good practice used by leading charities.

Charities depend on the public’s trust. I'm afraid I don't trust the current leadership not to want to undermine campaigning. Specially if they continue to be led by political and media fashions. I hope they will prove me wrong. But interventions like the those of the Chair in this now-infamous speech will certainly not help.

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