The charity sector as a whole is not meeting its potential and organisations need to rethink how they deliver their objectives to meet the challenges of the future, Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, said this week.
She delivered a speech at the leadership forum Charity2020 earlier this week, where she drew again on the Commission’s research into public trust and confidence and urged the sector to behave more ethically.
Stowell warned the sector against complacency and said that if charities do not adapt they risk losing their place in society.
“A focus on short-sighted fire-fighting today risks complacency about charities’ place in society tomorrow. And that would be a mistake,” she said.
“Because while the sector is by some measures in sound health, there are clouds on the horizon, warning signals if you like.
“These signs tell us that, at best, charities as institutions are not meeting their potential, and, at worst, that charities’ place as the primary vehicles of philanthropy and social change in our country is being challenged.”
She warned of a “growing gap” between public expectations of how charities should behave and how they see them behaving.
The public, she said, hold charities to a high standard and expect them to “live their values”, but too often they “see organisations often more focused on growth and expansion, and therefore on protecting their corporate reputations”.
She said there were other challenges, such as the increase of informal fundraising for individuals rather than organisations using online platforms, and the “growing phenomenon of purpose-led businesses”.
“I am convinced that, if they are to continue to thrive, and retain their place at the heart of our society, charities will need to demonstrate that they are more than organisations that have good aims,” she said.
‘Our job is to “dial up the good”’
Stowell said she saw the Commission’s role as being an amplifier of the positive work done by charities.
“Fundamentally we see our job as being to help ensure charity continues to ‘dial up the good’ in our society,” she said.
The Commission set out its new strategic ambitions last year and told the audience that the regulator aims to challenge wrongdoing in the sector, but also highlight examples of best practice and ensure the public is better informed about the work of charities.
She also said this means speaking up more about the conditions charities are operating in, and said that the recent report about the Garden Bridge Trust was an example of it doing just that.
“In the eyes of the public it was at the very least a regrettable failure. Their money had been wasted,” she said. This is why the Commission’s report “looked beyond the actions of the trustees” and “drew some hard lessons that will have made uncomfortable reading”.
Stowell said she wants charities to have a broader reach, but that to do so there needs to be a “cultural upheaval”.
“When I look to the future for charities in the years and decades ahead, I want to see a sector that is not just managing to deliver their worthy services in the face of increasing challenges,” she said.
“I want to see organisations and people that inspire and give hope. To work in ways that make all members of our society, regardless of their circumstances, feel invested in it, empowered to make changes and confident that their charitable endeavours are matched, exceeded even, by the attitude and behaviour that the charities on our register display.
“To achieve this future requires nothing short of cultural upheaval in the sector, and it’s requiring us as regulator to do our work in new and very different, difficult ways.”
By doing so she said charities could help to strengthen society, communities and democracy.
She said: “No other sector or grouping in society have this potential. Charities do.”