The Charity Commission has suffered a “double whammy” in terms of funding cuts and increasing demand for its services and, despite additional Treasury support last year, is still on a “knife edge”, its chief executive said yesterday.
Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, was speaking at the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting in Manchester yesterday.
She told the audience that the Commission is struggling to meet demand from the sector, but that it looked as though plans for a consultation on charging charities for regulation are on hold because the government is preoccupied with Brexit.
Stephenson highlighted year-on-year increases in the Commission’s caseload and said it receives on average 260 emails or phone calls from customers per day.
She outlined the key points from the Commission’s statement of strategic intent last year and said: “Work is currently underway translating all of these objectives into clear and measurable delivery plans. It’s not a heroic strategy, but it’s an ambitious one.”
Stephenson added that the Commission is “implementing it in a challenging time for us”.
“We’re already considerably stretched in terms of the volume of our work and the demands for our services,” she said, adding: “We have been hit in recent years by a double whammy of increasing demand for our services or increasing volume of work and the fact that our resources have declined.”
She said this has “real implications for us in the Commission and for our ability to fulfill statutory functions”.
Last year the government gave the Commission an additional £5m per year, until such time as a consultation on charging charities could come about.
“I’m very pleased that in the last year the Treasury granted us a small uplift in funding to deal with increasing volumes,” Stephenson said. “It allowed us to welcome more colleagues into the Commission.”
But added that: “We are still, I have to say, on a knife edge.”
Plans for charging on hold
In response to a question about charging she said: “We are not in a position to progress this at the moment.”
She said it was for the government to decide whether to pursue a consultation on charging.
“Government has other things on the agenda at the moment,” she added.
She said that “there is a dicussion to be had”, but she promised that if plans were brought forward there “would of course be very wide consultation with charities of every size, shape and form”.
In the meantime she said the Commission is focused on delivering on the refreshed aims set out in last year’s statement of strategic intent.
“We want to set out our stall to the charity sector about the way in which we are going to develop in the next five years,” Stephenson said.
‘We will be louder’
Stephenson, and the Commission’s chair, Baroness Stowell, both said charities should expect to hear the regulator speaking up more in the coming months.
Stowell said: “The ground beneath us is shifting more profoundly and more deeply than it has for generations. We need charities to live up to public expectations so that the sector can be a much needed source of hope and pride.”
“As fantastic as the work of many charities is, collectively they are not yet meeting their full potential. It is essential we understand why and respond.”
Charities have previously reacted negatively when Stowell has told the sector to up its game. Yesterday she said: “I don’t say these things to criticise individual charities or to put the charities in this room down.”
But she added that: “I hope that from April and in the months beyond, you will begin to see change in line with our purpose and strategic priorities.
“In the meantime, expect to see a more confident Commission. A Commission that is unafraid to use its voice and authority to encourage behaviour and conditions that help charity thrive.
“These interventions may not always be convenient to us, to others in positions of authority, or to individual charities. But they’ll always be motivated by our purpose – and in the interest of the public we represent and for whom charity is so precious.”
Improve access to data
Stephenson said the Commission is looking at ways to improve its website and make the data it holds more accessible.
“Our data is not easy to access and it is not easy to share or compare with other data sets,” she said, but added that the Commission is actively working on improving it.
She said it is also working to improve how content is presented so that it is engaging and useful to trustees.
Since launching the trustee welcome pack she revealed that it had been sent to nearly 50,000 new trustees.