Amid the unrelentingly awful news of the last few weeks, a couple of charity-related stories have provided a glimmer of optimism.
First, there was the reaction to the announcement by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich that he intended to pass “stewardship and care” of the club to its charitable foundation. This rather bizarre proposal seemed, at first glance at least, to suggest that the charity’s six trustees should take over the running of the multi-million-pound commercial enterprise. Those of us with even a basic grasp of charity law immediately wondered how this would work in practice. Was Abramovich suggesting that the club should become a trading subsidiary of the charity, and Gift Aid its profits to the foundation? How would the trustees handle the conflicts of interest that would surely arise? It felt like a governance horror story in the making.
But some quick work by the Charity Commission ensured that this potential firestorm was dampened before the spark could take hold. The regulator contacted the trustees to warn them about potential regulatory and conflict-of-interest issues, and advised them to submit a serious incident report to the Commission, which they duly did. Several media outlets were soon reporting that the trustees had misgivings about the proposal and had not agreed to it. In the event, the move seemed to be quietly shelved a few days later after Abramovich decided to put the club up for sale – though a charity link remained when he said he would give all net proceeds to a new foundation set up to benefit victims of the war in Ukraine.
While we should always remain alert to attempts to exploit the charity brand for questionable motives, I think the responses from both the regulator and the Chelsea FC Foundation trustees also provide a more positive angle to this story. Perhaps this case is evidence that the negative publicity that has dogged charity governance in the last few years is actually beginning to have a positive impact, with charity trustees now much more aware of their duties and responsibilities. The prompt intervention by the Commission was very helpful. The Commission was stung by criticism of its role in the Kids Company debacle and used the recent statutory inquiry report into that case to pledge that it was improving its own systems for assessing risks within charities and taking proactive steps to offer advice where red flags are found. If the regulator can play a bigger role in identifying potential problems, and averting them before they spiral out of control, as with the Chelsea FC Foundation, that can only be a good thing for public perceptions of the sector.
The second charity story that gave me heart this week was the incredible generosity of the UK public in giving to fundraising appeals to support Ukraine. Take the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal as just one example; the Great British public dug deep once again, giving £100m in the first four days to support those 15 charities that are working on the ground in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. Yes, public trust and confidence in the sector has taken some knocks in recent years, but when the chips are down, it is clear that people still turn to charities to act as conduits for their care, empathy and love.