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The Charity Commission's online register needs a review

The Charity Commission's online register needs a review
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The Charity Commission's online register needs a review1

Governance | Dorothy Dalton | 2 Mar 2010

Over the last few years, even with limited funding, the Charity Commission has achieved much. Its website is a treasure trove of useful publications.

The Commission developed its excellent online register of charities in order to help achieve its mission to ‘promote public trust and confidence in charities’. If you want to research any charity, the first step must be a visit to the online register. Members of the public, not surprisingly, believe the information provided on the regulator’s website must be accurate.

Little do visitors to the online register know that because of its inadequate funding, the Commission cannot financially afford to check the information given on the online register. Instead the information is just scanned in by staff from documents provided by charities.

Sadly, this means there is no guarantee that even the activities of a charity as stated on the online register, fall entirely within the charity’s charitable objects.

A random check of annual accounts reveals a charity with an income of a third of a million pounds, which clearly has no understanding of the difference between restricted and designated funds. Evidently their trustees, executive and auditor have little expertise on regulatory requirements regarding charity finance.

Look further, and surprisingly in the accounts of a grant-making trust set up and run by Mr & Mrs Springer (who together with an ‘independent’ are the only trustees) there is a statement which says: “The trustees have made payments for the relief of poverty to pay the school fees of the three grandchildren of Mr and Mrs Springer. The foregoing has been approved by the independent trustee.”

By virtue of submitting the accounts, private benefit is being reported to the regulator. If the regulator does nothing then the trustees believe that their actions are acceptable and the public are led to believe the Commission has given its approval for such a transaction. Does this increase the public’s trust in charities?

Inadvertently, that which is designed to increase public trust and confidence in charities can do the very opposite. Can the Commission afford not to read and address glaring errors before information is added to the online register?

Adrian Beney
Partner
Iain More Associates
3 Mar 2010

The Springer case looks "interesting" to me, and good for whoever dug it up. But I don't understand why you suggest that the Commission's publication of these accounts is a problem from the point of view of accuracy.

Probity maybe; and perhaps the Commission should have a disclaimer which says that the existence of the accounts on the website does not constitute their approval of the behaviour and activities reflected in the accounts.

I don't see how the Commission can ever "guarantee that the activities of a charity as stated on the online register, fall entirely within the charity’s charitable objects". That would be like expecting the police to guarantee that no-one would ever break the law.

It seems to the Commission's role is to make it as easy as possible to comply with the stated objects, and to correct things when they go wrong.

As a trustee of a charity which was materially disadvatanged by the (allegedly) dishonest behaviour of the trustees of another charity, I have been very favourably impressed by the robustness which with the Commission acted to remove Trustees they thought had failed in their responsibilities and to replace them with an Interim Manager.

I would hope we can treat honest trustees as people with a bit of "nous" and the wit to get professional advice when they think they might need it. Which opinion is, of course, undermined by the Springers' statement that they did exactly this for their grand-kids' school fees!

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Dorothy Dalton

Dorothy Dalton is editor of Governance magazine and a governance expert.

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