Helen Stephenson: 'It's not our job to be a friend to the sector, or to fight it'

05 Jan 2018 Interviews

David Ainsworth finds Helen Stephenson focused on finding more funding so that the Charity Commission can revive the advice role that budget cuts forced it to forego.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission

Helen Stephenson knew the charity sector well even before she became the chief executive of the Charity Commission. She had spent years as director of the Office for Civil Society – the government departmentwithin- a-department responsible for charity policy – and held senior posts at the Big Lottery Fund and the Shaftesbury Society.

But now, six months into her new role, she says the scale of the task she has taken on has still taken her by surprise.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” she says. “I’m just surprised at how much stuff comes into the Commission. We’ve having to punch above our weight, dealing with it all with just 300 staff.”

Stephenson says she is busier than she has ever been. She speaks excitedly about many aspects of the job, and about the huge value charities offer the country.

“This to me is a perfect opportunity,” she says. “It’s not often in life that you come across something which feels just as if it is the right thing at the right time.”

Give us the money

She sits down to the interview with one clear and overriding message: the regulator needs more financial resources if it wants to deliver what trustees need. And, like her predecessor Paula Sussex, and her outgoing chair William Shawcross, she is committed to charging large charities in order to get the money.

It is a deeply controversial topic. Few in the sector believe the Commission can do what is asked of it with the budget it has been given. In recent years it has seen its budget effectively halved, and has also been told to focus much more on regulation and investigation.

Many in the sector believe government should pay more, and Stephenson says she has been making that case.

“It’s my job as the chief executive to be clear about the needs of the Commission with colleagues across Whitehall,” she says. “I have spent a lot of time telling people how much work the Commission does which affects them, and how deeply involved charities are. I receive a lot of sympathy and support from colleagues. It’s clear how well regarded charities are – I think we do not make the case strongly enough for how good the sector is.”

But she does not believe that will translate into more money from public coffers.

“We’re unlikely to improve our financial settlement for several years yet,” she says.

Her preference appears to be that large charities effectively fund the advice and support that smaller bodies need.

There are 167,000 registered charities and tens of thousands more which are regulated but not registered. Of the registered charities, 80 per cent have no staff at all. The recent Charity Commission report, Taken on Trust, found that trustees – particularly in these smaller organisations – badly need advice, but that the only external source they really trust is the Charity Commission.

This is a major problem because the Commission has effectively stopped providing advice over the last few years, following swingeing cuts in 2011 and a mauling from the Public Accounts Committee in 2013.

“It’s crucial for us to be the kind of regulator that charities deserve,” Stephenson says. “It’s undoubtedly right to ask the taxpayer to fund compliance and investigation. But what Taken on Trust showed is that there is a huge need in the sector for more enabling work. That’s what we want to expand.”

Stephenson is clearly frustrated by how long it has taken to consult on charging. In order to launch a consultation the regulator must get various permissions from HM Treasury and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but the referendum and election effectively derailed this process.

“We’ve gone back to the beginning of the queue,” Stephenson says. “We aren’t able to get the discussion going.”

She is also frustrated that the opponents of charging are using the delay to build their own case. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and so people are out there expressing their own views. We have a lot of misinformation.”

She is also thinking about the practicalities of charging. The Commission has barely raised an invoice, and running a levy would be expensive and difficult – as the Fundraising Regulator has found to its cost.

“We can’t pretend we know everything,” she says. “We will need experts to get that right.”

Trustee diversity

Providing advice might be her main goal, but it was not the only problem revealed in Taken on Trust. Potentially a bigger issue was inclusivity and diversity on trustee boards. And while everyone agrees that something must be done about this issue, it is not clear who will actually act.

“We’d like to see the sector as a whole come together and develop an action plan,” Stephenson says. “We have a convening power to bring people together, but the sector itself must respond.”

Singing charities’ praises

She believes that charities need to make the case for their own success much more powerfully, and advocate on their own behalf.

“Charities need to spend more time saying ‘we’re really good’,” she says. “I’d like to see a much more concerted effort to sing the praises of charities.”

The Office for Civil Society has recently announced plans to consult on a new strategy for the voluntary sector, and Stephenson says she thinks this is an issue the OCS should take up.

The Stephenson Years

  • 2014-2017 Director of early years and childcare, Department for Education
  • 2011-2014 Director, Office for Civil Society and Government Innovation Group
  • 2007-2011 Deputy director, Office for Civil Society, Cabinet Office
  • 2004-2007 Head of strategic policy and partnerships, the Big Lottery Fund
  • 2001-2004 Senior policy advisor, New Opportunities Fund/Big Lottery Fund 

“The public haven’t fallen out of love with charities,” she says. “But they are expecting higher standards. They are expecting charities to behave to the same standards as everyone else in public life. Again, that’s why a visible, strong regulator is really key. I think of the charity sector as an ecosystem, and it’s partly our job to keep the trust and confidence in the ecosystem together.”

Stephenson, like her predecessor, appears focused on improving efficiency at the regulator.

“We’ve started a transformation journey at the Commission,” Stephenson says. “We’re very much working on becoming more risk-based.

“We’re still very much in the foothills of our journey to digital transformation, and we need that to fulfil its potential. But I’m very impressed with the progress that’s been made. We’re looking to have more services come online very shortly. We’ve already changed the annual return so you only have to update the information which has changed.”

A confident regulator

For all the talk of the regulator being underfunded, Stephenson appears to have inherited a Charity Commission which is growing more confident about its abilities. It has just gone through a digital change programme and is registering more charities, using more powers, and speaking out with more certainty. A relatively positive report from the National Audit Office highlights many areas where the Commission could do more, but broadly gives the regulator a tick in every box.

“We’re more confident about using our powers,” Stephenson says. “A few years ago we used them 70 times a year. This year we used them more than 1,000 times.”

The Commission received new powers from Parliament last year, and has used these around 70 times.

“We’re a robust regulator,” she says. “It’s not our job to be a friend to the sector, but it’s not our job to fight charities, either. Our job is to hold to account those few who misbehave, but to the rest, who are trying to do a good job, we should view as our customers. Our job is to do more to help them get it right.”

She feels the Commission is building better relationships with its stakeholders, too. Although nominally independent, the regulator can often find itself buffeted by bigger beasts in Whitehall, and by the tides of political opinion. It is also pushed at by the sector itself, with many intractable problems dumped in its lap. The phrase ‘I think the Charity Commission has an important role to play here’ is one uttered by many a sector worker encountering a problem they find too difficult to solve.

“We are answerable to Parliament,” Stephenson says. “We’ve faced some difficult challenges and come through them.”

One major piece of work has been an inquiry into collapsed charity Kids Company. But an inquiry report is still some way away, because the work of the Insolvency Service must be completed first. Since the Insolvency Service is engaged in what could be a two-year court battle with former Kids Company chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh, this could be delayed or a while.

There has been some dissatisfaction in the sector over the make-up of the Commission’s board, but she appears happy with the support she is receiving.

“Every one of them cares deeply about the charity sector,” she says.

A new chair is due to be appointed in January, although it has already been delayed, and there is the prospect that the new appointment might not be ready to start until after William Shawcross, the incumbent, has already departed.

Stephenson says this is with DCMS, and appears happy enough to sit and wait. If she would be unhappy at the prospect of having former charities minister Rob Wilson foisted on her, she gives no sign of it.

‘No comment’ on NCT

One issue where Stephenson will not be drawn is that of the NCT. She was chair of the parenthood charity when a number of trustees were sacked as a precaution, on the advice of a media firm, apparently to head off potential criticism after a child died in a cot branded with the NCT logo. Several investigations have since taken place into different aspects of the case, and Stephenson faced criticism over her handling of trustees who in the end were found to have faced no blame.

“I have been involved in many charities,” she says. “I don’t think it would be fair to talk about my involvement in any of them.”


The Stephenson Years

  • 2014-2017 Director of early years and childcare, Department for Education
  • 2011-2014 Director, Office for Civil Society and Government Innovation Group
  • 2007-2011 Deputy director, Office for Civil Society, Cabinet Office
  • 2004-2007 Head of strategic policy and partnerships, the Big Lottery Fund
  • 2001-2004 Senior policy advisor, New Opportunities Fund/Big Lottery Fund 


David Ainsworth is group online editor at Civil Society Media

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