The Charity Commission's new strategic plan contains some good elements, but an aspect that has drawn criticism is the intention to “use our voice more strongly to encourage the behaviour that people expect of charities”.
On one level there is a logic to this. The public has been dissatisfied with recent issues at some charities regarding safeguarding, sexual misconduct and fundraising practice, and justifiably so. As a result, those charities have needed to change.
And in general, I would argue that all charities should seek to operate to the highest standards, whether that be in terms of their governance, how they treat staff and suppliers, their approach to diversity and equality, or their environmental footprint.
However, there are problems with asking charities to “do what people expect”.
The public don’t speak with one voice, and morality is highly contested. People have different views of how charities should behave, and different charities may reflect the values of different people. The views put forward in elements of the national press do not necessarily reflect majority opinion, and even if they do, charities have a right to disagree.
Examples of 'uncharitable behaviour'
It is possible that the reality will be relatively benign. Commission chair Baroness Stowell gave three examples of “uncharitable behaviour” in a recent speech, and all are fairly uncontroversial.
“Exploitation of vulnerable people” is not something anyone would defend.
“Aggressive fundraising practices” are also not particularly defensible – competition for funds can lead to excesses which needed to be curbed now and then, though there remains a problem in defining what is “aggressive”.
And while it is debatable whether “a single-minded pursuit of organisational growth” is really a widespread problem, in itself it isn’t desirable if it is to the detriment of beneficiaries.
However, questions remain. What themes might the Commission choose to focus on in the future? Will it always exercise its moral judgement in an acceptable way? To what extent is it seeking to move beyond simply enforcing the law?
As Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, put it: “The new strategy statement seems to envisage a regulator less tethered to its legal anchoring, moving into realms of ‘behaviour’ and ‘expectations’, which is highly problematic.”
Can unpopularity be a virtue?
I would also argue that sometimes charities absolutely should be unpopular.
Fundraising inevitably means making people feel guilty if they choose not to donate to a worthy cause, no matter how sensitively it is conducted.
And promoting the rights of minority groups or causes frequently means coming into conflict with others who wish to restrict them.
Just look at Stonewall. It was set up to oppose the Conservative government's infamous “section 28” clause, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools.
At that time, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 75 per cent of the population believed homosexual activity was "always or mostly wrong".
So section 28 had popular support, but Stonewall nevertheless campaigned for what was right.
Another example is the the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which works to rehabilitate sex offenders in order to prevent them reoffending.
Theirs is not a cause that generates much in the way of public support, so instead the charity relies to a large extent on government funding, but their work is vital.
Now I might be taking the argument a little far here. Baroness Stowell has not talked about going beyond the Commission's usual regulatory role in determining the causes that charities are allowed to support. Her focus appears to be very much on how charities achieve their aims rather than what those aims are.
But the examples I've given do serve as a reminder that the court of public opinion is not always the best arbiter for charity practice.
The big problem here is one of trust. Stowell’s status as a Conservative grandee who was appointed via a disputed selection process means she already had an uphill battle in proving to charities that she does not represent a partisan view.
Her decision last month to speak in sweeping terms about the sector’s conduct and its possible demise did little to help.
Some charities do some things well, and some charities do some things badly. Tarring them all with the same brush seems like an attack on the fundamental character and motives of the sector, which is bound to get people's backs up.
And if the sector is so rotten, then perhaps there is a structural issue? Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if charities were replaced by social enterprises, crowdfunding and ethical businesses?
I don't think the sector is rotten, and history suggests it is unlikely to wither away anyway. While charities shouldn't be complacent and should always seek to improve, the sector has been remarkably resilient over the decades and centuries. It has always found ways to adapt to new circumstances and challenges.
To suggest it is now on the precipice is unhelpful hyperbole that undermines Baroness Stowell wider intentions. If she is to achieve real change in the culture of the charity sector, then she must find the right tone to win hearts and minds.
Gareth Jones is editor of Charity Finance magazine