Tania Mason: So far, so good

16 May 2022 In-depth

As the Trustee Exchange audience gathered back in the main room for the closing keynote speech by the new Charity Commission chair earlier this month, someone remarked to me that during Orlando Fraser’s previous stint at the Commission, he was its “least worst board member”.

That hasn’t stopped him from copping some flak over some dodgy decisions taken by the regulator during his tenure. In particular, there was the publication of EU referendum guidance which was so flawed it had to be withdrawn and redrafted, and also the misguided attempt to fetter the discretion of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to fund whomever it likes, which ended with another embarrassing climbdown by the Commission. Critics have been quick to point out that Fraser was the Commission’s legal board member at the time, so he should have known better on both counts, and suggest that he was swayed by pressure from politicians not fully subscribed to the notion of independence of either the regulator or the sector.

Less widely reported has been the extent of time he devoted to the Rugby Portobello Trust in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster when, according to its CEO, he volunteered “more than full time for six weeks” helping survivors of the fire through the crisis. He was still on the Commission’s board then, too.

For his part, Fraser is on the record as saying that the Commission has never kowtowed to government on his watch and that on a personal level he is “resolutely and cheerfully non-party political”. And in his first speech as chair – which, aides insisted, he wrote himself – he was keen to emphasise that under his leadership, the Commission will be “beholden to no one” except the law. “We must act without fear or favour from any other entity”, including government and party politicians, he said. Only time will tell if “must” means “will”.

There was no doubting he was on a charm offensive with our mainly trustee audience, describing them as the “guardians of charity” with “superpowers” and concluding “we are all in your debt”. He also peppered his address with no less than four mentions of the word “love” – plus one more for good measure in the Q&A session, when he declared “I love this sector”. I’m betting he knows that the word “charity” is derived from the word “caritas” which is Latin for “love for all”. He even paid tribute to Oxfam and Save the Children, two charities that have suffered some pain at the hands of the regulator’s caseworkers recently. There was no doubt he was trying hard to ingratiate himself with the sector that he’ll be regulating.

But actions speak louder than words, and at the busy post-event drinks reception, Fraser backed up his rhetoric with action, moving affably from delegate to delegate, introducing himself and enquiring who people were and what they did. For nearly an hour he worked the room, and seemed genuinely interested in people’s responses.

He also used his speech to pay tribute to his predecessors, declaring that Dame Suzi Leather, William Shawcross, Baroness Stowell and interim chair Ian Karet had all discharged the role “with distinction”.

In the end, Fraser’s first public speech was a flagrant yet skilful effort to cover all bases, to warm up all key stakeholders. It was, overall, a positive start. We will be watching his progress with great interest.

Tania Mason is the editor of Governance & Leadership magazine

Governance & Leadership is a bimonthly publication which helps charity leaders and trustees on their journey from good practice to best practice. Written by leading sector experts each issue is packed with news, in-depth analysis and real-life case studies of best practice in charitable endeavour and charity governance plus advice and guidance straight from the regulator. Find more information here and subscribe today!


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