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Commission gets complaints of controlling behaviour and groups clinging to power

27 Feb 2020 News

The Charity Commission has said it sees too many examples of “disputes, internal factions and divisions” in a report about the complaints it has received.

From April to June 2019, the Commission received 600 complaints and reports about charities which fell below the threshold for direct regulatory action.

Based on analysis of more than 200 of these, the report identifies trends and offers advice to charities based on its findings. The report also reveals that one complaint out of the 200 required further evaluation.

However, the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition has questioned whether an analysis of complaints which didn't require regulatory action was the best area for the Commission to focus on. 

The four main findings

The report highlights four key findings.

First, it says that “people who complain are usually people you know”. It finds that people don't only complain to the regulator about large household name charities, but about charities they are involved in.

Secondly, the report advises charities to “be accountable”, as many of the complaints were about matters that charities had not dealt with effectively. “People felt their concerns had been ignored or dismissed.”

It adds that completing annual accounts and reports is not “a mere tick-box exercise”, as members of the public raise concerns if a charity’s accounts and report are overdue, or if information looks wrong or incomplete.

The report also warns charities not to take status as a charity, and the public’s support, “for granted”. It says that being passionate about a cause “does not justify attitudes or behaviour that contradict the values you stand for”.

Lastly, it finds that if a bad situation is handled well, this can do “a lot to inspire trust”. It adds that complaints “can be a learning opportunity”.

Examples of controlling behaviour and a culture where people never question or challenge

The report acknowledges it is “impossible to foresee or prevent everything”. 

Nonetheless, the regulator has said that there are too many examples of  “disputes, internal factions and divisions”, and advises charities to have controls and procedures in place “for what they can reasonably foresee”.

The Commission says it hears complaints about “groups clinging onto power and keeping others from having a voice”. It also sees examples of controlling behaviour, or of a culture where people never question or challenge. 

The report adds that these kinds of behaviour may go unnoticed outside the charity, but they can do huge damage to people, relationships and trust. “By the time we become involved, there may be little hope of reconciliation or a positive outcome.”

'Time could be better spent'

The regulator recently admitted that it failed to follow up a complaint made in 2018 about how the Alzheimer’s Society was dealing with staff grievances. It has since “overhauled” its handling of whistleblowing reports. 

Rita Chadha, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, said: “It is helpful to always be aware of where the shortfalls are in any industry or sector. However we at the Small Charities Coalition are at a loss as to understand why the Charity Commission has chosen to highlight complaints that, by their own admission, they would not bother investigating.

“Surely a focused effort on complaints that do meet their regulatory requirements for investigation would be of benefit to us all and more helpful in identifying trends and creating remedies and support.

“The Commission's time would be better spent ensuring that it takes seriously the concerns of those that report serious incidents such as bullying, rather than seeking to tarnish the collective good reputation of the vast majority of charities.” 

Colin Douglas, interim director of communications and policy, said: “We make no apology for our report, which is a balanced and measured summary of lessons arising from a certain set of complaints made to the Commission. The suggestion that in so doing we are 'seeking to tarnish the collective good reputation of charities' indicates a surprising disregard for the people who felt compelled to complain to the Commission. That issues raised with us don’t meet the threshold for regulatory action does not mean they are unimportant. To negate them does a disservice to the volunteers, members and supporters of charities, and members of the wider public, who took the time to write to us to make a complaint.”

Editor's note: 27 February 16.14

This story has been updated to include a response from the Charity Commission.  

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