Charities should stay out of ‘contentious debates’, says former Commission chair

03 Oct 2023 News

Baroness Stowell, former chair of the Charity Commission

Former Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell has urged large charities to avoid “contentious debates” to halt a “worrying divergence in public trust” in the sector.

Speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event yesterday, Stowell said she had observed a “worrying divergence in public trust when it comes to charities” and this “is affecting some people's propensity to give”.

“The reason why I'm highlighting this divergence, is because those who have a lower trust in charities are influenced so much by the big name charities, and more national brands and charities, that I think it's even more important that these larger charities recognise their responsibility for upholding the reputation and brand of charity as a whole,” she said.

“It's even more important in this potentially diverging picture, which I think is quite worrying, that they are conscious of not making that divergence worse, and staying out of contentious debates, where it is leading some people to feel sort of less confident in the charitable sector.”

Also speaking at the event, backbench MPs urged greater government action to engage with the charity sector, including the creation of a minister for philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Charities Aid Foundation chief executive Neil Heslop called for a national strategy for philanthropy and charitable giving.

Stowell: We should not ‘make everything a charity’

Stowell said society “shouldn't rush to try and make everything a charity”.

“I think there's been a trend over the last 20 years to turn things that might be a public service that is directly funded by the taxpayer into something which is a charitable thing,” she said.

“And I don't think that necessarily helps, I don't think it helps distinguish in people's mind the difference and distinctiveness of charity, which is, again, I think, important to generate people's confidence to give.

“I think that it's incumbent on charities to be as open and as honest as possible about the tensions that exist in terms of sometimes where they have to invest money in order to create the opportunity to make a difference, not to be defensive about it to get on the front foot to show that they know the importance on them of being accountable to the people that they're relying on to do the good work that they want them to do.”

Damian Green, Conservative MP for Ashford, said: “We need to extend the debate beyond simply the provision of money to charities and people with philanthropic impulses [...] 

“And that's particularly true of older people who are fitter for longer, and who seek to have some kind of purpose in later life, but it's also true of others as well. And that use of time for charitable volunteering is absolutely ideal.”

Minister for philanthropy

Jo Gideon, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: “I would join the call for a more positive approach to philanthropy from government, and possibly even a minister for philanthropy. Because I think that we need to harness the good.”

“In Britain, we have a different attitude to wealth and therefore to philanthropy. We don't praise the wealthy for donating, we criticise them for being so wealthy and that is the fundamental problem I think that sits deep within our culture.”

Green also said Britain did not have the same philanthropic culture as countries such as the USA.

He said it was an “observable fact that individuals, particularly successful individuals in the USA, feel an instinctive obligation” to donate because they have done well out of the way that society is run.

“If we want that kind of culture, we're not only going to have to become a much lower tax society with all the implications that has about public services and what we expect from our welfare state, but also change our attitude to the institutions that we go through in our lives,” he said.

Green said that the government “would do better to try and start changing the culture to make sure that people regarded it as part of their civic duty to do this, and particularly people who have the advantages of financial stability”.

CAF: Government should bring in a national strategy 

Neil Heslop, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said the government should consider bringing forward a national strategy for philanthropy and charitable giving.

He said the UK had a “smaller proportion of our society giving on a regular basis” and philanthropy is therefore crucial.

“The whole question of philanthropy policy is not one that is traditionally very high on the public agenda,” he said.

“But we think at this point in our history, it's important that it is raised up and put on people's agenda, really, because we're at a very important point in the sector's history.”

Heslop called on the government to “see the sector in its entirety for the potential that it offers”. 

He said the sector is “very often invisible” in economic terms and it has “much greater potential than we have yet fully realised” and part of that is because the way that the government operates means the connection between its economic contribution is difficult to recognise in government statistics.

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