Charities must not be driven by their leaders’ personal views, says Orlando Fraser

23 Mar 2023 News

Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission

Charity Commission

The Charity Commission’s chair has said that charities must be driven by their purposes, “not the personal views or instincts of their leaders”.

In a speech at ACEVO’s festival of leadership yesterday, Orlando Fraser said charities should remain “separate to the political fray” in their campaigning and avoid “trashing the motivations of those who think differently”.

He also spoke about the pressures facing charities in the UK, his personal project to encourage philanthropy and the Commission’s social media guidance consultation.

‘I do not want charities to show deference to those in power’

Fraser said: “Across the board, I’ve been impressed with the talent, energy, passion and grit that I’ve encountered among charity leaders.

“Your roles are hugely challenging, often very lonely, and your shoulders have to be broad indeed.”

He added he does not want a public discourse “robbed of the expertise” that charities so often bring, but said charities should remain “separate to the political fray”. 

“I do not want charities to show deference to those in power, or to spare the government or politicians embarrassment. But charities must remain driven in everything they do by their purposes. Not the personal views or instincts of their leaders.”

He added he was concerned about the impact on leaders themselves, as a result of the current economic climate. 

“Scrutiny on your decisions as leaders is also likely to sharpen as financial pressures mount,” Fraser noted.

Philanthropy here ‘lags behind’ other countries 

Fraser said it was a “personal priority” to encourage the wealthiest in society to give more to charity, as “the philanthropic culture here in England and Wales lags behind those in comparable countries”.

He added the Commission will not question leaders’ decisions to accept donations “even when they are controversial – unless there are genuine concerns about wrongdoing or unlawfulness”.

Later this year, Fraser said the Commission will publish updated guidance on returning and refusing donations. 

“It will promote lawful philanthropy and will aim to further empower you and your trustees to use their discretion in making the right decision for your charity, starting from the principle that you must have funds to deliver on your charity’s purpose.”

Social media guidance ‘does not change the law’

Fraser noted the consultation on the draft social media guidance “attracted much interest and discussion within the sector”.

He said he would not pre-empt the consultation process, “but I would like to reiterate the purpose of the draft guidance, our motivation in producing it”.

“The guidance does not change the law or trustees’ responsibilities under the law. Instead, and quite simply, it is designed to support charities to use social media with confidence, to ensure trustees understand their responsibilities, and remain risk aware. Including in the context of their staff and volunteers – people like you - using social media in their own right.”

Fraser said he’d heard concerns from charities that the guidance will encourage or facilitate spurious complaints from those who may want to silence charities they disagree with.

“With respect, I think this is to look at the matter through the wrong end of the telescope. The Commission already receives complaints about charities, and those involved in charities and their public statements.”

Fraser added that “knee-jerk critics of the consultation process” should consider the widespread demand from charities for the Commission’s social media guidance.

He said in the future, the regulator will be able to provide reassurance and clarity “by pointing those with unfounded concerns to our specific social media guidance”.

Butler-Sloss decision response ‘accurate’

Fraser’s speech continued: “One area in which there has been recent debate – largely civilised and constructive, I’m glad to say – is around the Commission’s response to the last year’s High Court judgment on investments.

“Some have raised doubt about the Commission’s expertise in interpreting that judgment in a summary we made available on our website.

“I can reassure you that we are confident that our statement in response to the Butler-Sloss decision was an accurate reflection of that judgment, and of the law, and that our upcoming guidance will be too.”

He said he understood those who are keen to promote green investments – “but the law is clear that trustees have very wide discretion in making investment decisions that are right for their charities”, and the Butler-Sloss judgment has not changed that.

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