The Charity Commission has unveiled a new five-year strategy signalling a shift in its focus to operate more collaboratively but also demand higher standards of behaviour from the sector.
In a speech this evening Baroness Stowell, who became chair of the regulator earlier this year, will say that charities must do more to set a good example, otherwise they “risk being complicit in its decline”.
She will also commit to improving the support the regulator offers to charities and fostering a non-adversarial relationship with the sector.
‘Being a registered charity must mean more’
This evening she will tell an audience at the Royal Society of Arts that charities must do more to show they deserve charity status.
“Being a registered charity will need to amount to more than it does today if that status is to survive, let alone to thrive,” she will say, and that the sector and the regulator need to “promote what is special about charity, and to meet legitimate public expectations of charity,” or “risk being complicit in its decline”.
She will call on the sector to “recognise our collective responsibility as custodians of what it means to be a charity in the eyes of the public” and “fulfil our responsibility for making the changes needed”.
Charities “must be a living example of charitable purpose, charitable attitude, and charitable behaviour”, she will say, and that all “must behave like a charity, not just call itself a charity because of the aims it has and the work it does. Charitable aims cannot justify uncharitable means.”
Stowell will say that research shows the public “want to see charities being held, and holding themselves, to the highest standard of charitable behaviour.”
‘New course for the regulator’
Stowell will say that the Commission must also change and go beyond its role as a statutory regulator.
It needs to “offer more, and amount to more, in the years ahead" and said “we must now steer a new course, if we are to do our duty by the public we serve”.
“The Commission cannot afford – literally or metaphorically – to see the fulfilment of our statutory functions as the totality of its mission,” she will say. “We must be able to demonstrate what we stand for in ways that chime with people’s lives, concerns and interests, and to achieve this, what we stand for must be greater than simply the sum of what we do. We must be an organisation led by purpose.”
She will also set out an ambition to provide more insight about charities with the data it collects.
“I’m not convinced that the way we gather, hold, and report information about charities is as purposeful and useful as it should be. Working with others, I want us to become less of a warehouse for charity data, and more of a curator of knowledge about individual charities, and about the sector,” she will say.
Stowell believes this could help the public to have confidence in charities by giving them “power”.
‘I will avoid conflict with the sector’
Charities were often frustrated by what they saw as public and unnecessary criticism of the sector by the previous chair, William Shawcross, and Stowell will say she wants to avoid an "adversarial approach".
Tonight Stowell will also promise to develop “the right relationship with the charities we regulate".
“I see no benefit in a deliberately adversarial approach. I will not measure my success in the number of public fights I pick. I will not feel stronger for having criticised charities," she said.
She said the Commission will be “championing charitable behaviour, as much as we will be required to draw attention to shortcomings or failings”.
Five core strategic objectives
The strategy includes five strategic objectives:
Holding charities to account
The document says this is “about more than just compliance with the legal minimum standards” and that it will do more to use its “leadership role” to encourage charities to act ethically.
“We will use our voice more strongly to encourage the behaviour that people expect of charities,” it says.
Dealing with wrongdoing and harm
The Commission says that “good informaiton analysis” is key to identifying and dealing with problems.
It admits that its investigations can be “slow to conclude” and wants to use technology better to close simpler regulatory cases more quickly.
The Commission has also committed to making sure that “no complaint is ignored” and even where no action is taken complaints will feed into its data trends.
Informing public choice
The Commission collects and publishes data about charities via the annual return and its online register, but it says this is not “easy to access, share or compare with other datasets”.
“We are committed to making sure our data is truly open,” it says.
Giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed
The Commission says that at the moment most of its guidance is “aimed at all charities and limited mostly to describing the things charities should not do”.
It aims to provide more targeted guidance and concentrate on the areas of highest risk.
Keeping charity relevant for today’s world
The strategy promises the Commission will “lead the thinking about how charities can thrive in a changing world”.
It will aim to shape government agenda and “speak confidently and authoritatively across government, in Parliament and on charity matters as the expert regulator, informed by our experience and our data, with the intention of supporting a stronger charity sector”.
Changing the way we work
To fulfill this strategy the Commission says it needs to “work in partnership with others”.
It also said it will mean “changing the way we work” and that its “staff must think differently about the way they carry out their roles to ensure we are fulfilling our purpose”.
The Commission’s budget was effectively halved by austerity measures and for a number of years senior figures at the regulator have been discussing the possibility of charging a levy on larger charities - a move that has raised concerns in the sector.
The strategy document says that the Commission “does not have all the resources necessary".
In order to begin the consultation the Commission needs to get permission from HM Treasury and the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport. Once it has completed the consultation government would need to change the law to enable the Commission to charge a levy.
NCVO: 'We accept the challenge'
Peter Kellner, chair of NCVO, said it is “right to demand the highest standards” and that: “The great majority that maintain those standards feel betrayed when a small minority fall short. The Commission deserves support for its efforts to provide a clear regulatory framework and a focus on where things go wrong.
“It is equally important to celebrate the range, diversity and impact of Britain’s charities. Every year they make a big difference in every community, both in what they do and how they do it. The British people continue to be generous because they appreciate the positive work that charities undertake. Indeed we should remain proud that Britain’s charities retain a level of trust that many other national institutions can only dream of.
“Nevertheless, as Baroness Stowell says, those levels of trust have seen a modest decline. It needs to be reversed. To help achieve this, NCVO will soon publish a code of ethics for the charity sector, to build upon our popular and rigorous quality standards that already underpin many charities’ work. We have also helped develop a strong, clear charity governance code.
“For our part, NCVO accepts the challenge to help charities do more, and do it better. We look forward to working with the Commission to build stronger charities.”
Acevo: 'Welcome step but too soon to gauge what change will occur'
Vicky Browning, chief executive of Acevo said: “This declaration of strategic intent is a welcome step towards the Charity Commission setting out a clear vision that articulates what it believes the role of the regulator is, what good regulation looks like and how it wants to achieve that.”
She added that it is “light on detail", but "I am pleased that the strategy talks about addressing some of the concerns we have heard from Acevo members in recent years, including reducing the length of time to conclude investigations and making better use of data. It is also a step change to hear the Charity Commission saying it will ‘lead thinking about how charities can thrive in a changing world'."
“These statements could be indications of a shift away from the often confrontational tone of the Commission’s previous chair William Shawcross. However, an emphatic section on declining trust alongside a clear indication that there will be a consultation on charity charging, means it is too early yet to gauge what change will occur during Baroness Stowell’s tenure", she said.
NPC: 'Trust flows not just from avoiding wrong, but doing right'
Nathan Yeowell, head of policy at NPC, said the regulator "should be applauded for showing both realism about where the Commission is now, and ambition about the role it can take in the future".
He added that: "We believe that trust flows not just from avoiding wrong, but doing right. For charities this means having impact. We welcome the Commission’s commitment to open up its data to get impact out in the open and promote collaboration and merger, but it must also be matched with a commitment to help, and in some cases compel charities to do better for the people they exist to serve."