The Charity Commission will set out a new strategy this year intended to "rebuild trust in charities", the regulator's new chair has said in her first speech.
Baroness Stowell, who took up her role at the Commission at the start of March, said that charities face a “sobering” lack of trust from the public, and must work hard to put that right.
She said people now trust charities “no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street”.
She said that while the regulator will consult on a strategy later this year "what is already clear to me, is the fundamental aim of the Commission. To help increase – I would say rebuild – trust in charities as vehicles for charitable endeavour."
She said the public want to see that "no matter how you slice a charity, what you’ll find is a relentless focus on its charitable purpose,” she said. “And that means demonstrating that the way charities prioritise, behave and conduct themselves is focussed solely on delivering the right results.”
She said that members of the public always said they want transparency from charities.
“But again, we need to really understand why they are asking for this,” she said. “After all, most of us lead busy lives. So why the focus on information about and from charities?
“It is a proxy for something far more profound. They want proof that you are who you say you are.”
She said the Commission’s job “is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you”.
She said her role was “to help you understand what the public expect, and to help you respond.”
She said the sector needs to understand why public trust has been falling.
Unlike other sectors "all a charity has is its purpose," she said. "So when a charity’s purpose is undermined, whether through misconduct or other failures, your very reason for existence comes into question."
New strategy on the way
Stowell hinted that a consultation on charging charities for regulation would wait until after this strategy was developed.
"We are under intense resource pressure," she said. "We have seen significant increases in volumes of case work – including most recently around safeguarding concerns. And like other public bodies, we have seen our funding cut drastically - by 50 per cent in real terms over the past 8 years."
Stowell said that the regulator wants to hear from charities as it develops its strategic plan.
"We plan to publish our new strategic plan in the summer," she said. "Between now and then, I intend to do a lot of listening. First, to the public whose interest we exist to represent. And, not least of all, to charities. To you.
"Because I believe we can and must work together to ensure that the public – whom we all serve – has well-founded confidence in charities."
She said the way that the regulator could help rebuild public trust is by "understanding and articulating the public interest in charity" and to help charities understand public expectations.
"To help you understand what the public expect, and to help you respond," she said.
"Not to undermine the independence of individual charities. But to help the sector respond to the reasons the public cherish what it is you do. And to hold the sector as a whole, and its leadership, to account against that bar. I am clear, this is the single most useful and supportive thing we as the regulator can do for charities, and the sector."
Stowell said the regulator needed to be "crystal clear about our purposes and aims".
She added that "we must be able to demonstrate that everything we do – from registering charities, to providing guidance, to investigating – and how we conduct ourselves, is in single-minded pursuit of our purpose".
'We have the solution'
She concluded the speech by saying that she was confident that the sector could tackle the problem.
"I hope what I’ve said today hasn’t sounded too dour. I don’t mean to be down-beat. Because I am optimistic," she said.
"I am confident in charities’ ability to rebuild public trust in their organisations, if they set their minds to it.
"And I believe that you have the power, to begin reversing the trend of declining public trust and social cohesion in society more generally."