The chair of the Charity Commission has said charities spend a lot of time listening to one section of the public, which she dubbed "the charity sector echo chamber".
In a speech to the annual conference of Navca, the local infrastructure body, in Sheffield, Stowell said the Commission had done work into how the public perceived charity, and identified that there were major differences based on age, location and financial security.
She said that national charities typically engage with the "echo chamber" group of supporters in particular, who tend to support their activities and be relatively comfortable with large salaries in the bodies they support.
Stowell warned that there were other groups of individuals with very different views about charity.
She also said that while those groups may differ in their viewpoint, they all expect charities to have high ethical standards.
“The research found that, regardless of this diversity of view, there is a remarkable agreement on one basic expectation of charity,” she said.
“Namely that being a registered charity should mean something. That charities should be held to higher standards of behaviour, conduct and integrity because they are charities.
“People don’t expect to like everything every charity does, let alone to wish to support every charity with their time and money. This is not about charities competing for popularity.
“What the public expect is to be able to respect a charity because of the way it conducts itself, the sincerity and authenticity with which it pursues its charitable objectives.”
She said that Julia Unwin’s Civil Society Futures report had highlighted many of the same challenges.
She said the Commission expected charities to question whether they were delivering all their work to a high ethical standard, but would not be investigating charities that failed to be sufficiently ethical.
More targeted guidance
She said the regulator would instead contribute by producing more targeted guidance.
“I recognise that we have to do more to help give trustees the understanding and tools they need to succeed,” she said. “As you know, we already provide online guidance for trustees. But at the moment, it’s aimed at all charities generically, and it’s largely limited to saying what it is charities should not do.
“I don’t think that will cut it in the years ahead. To help trustees get things right before they go wrong, we need to be more targeted in the way we create and communicate our guidance.
“We need to do more to fit with different charities’ needs, including the needs of smaller charities, such as those you support.”
Feels like a class detention
Stowell faced questions from the audience, including one who said that her approach made charities feel like a class at school which had been “held back in detention” because of the actions of a few children.
Stowell said that most charities already had extremely high standards, but that it would be a mistake for smaller organisations to assume that just because they had not faced national scandals, they could simply sit back and do nothing.