The Charity Commission's board has a problem with its (in my view mistaken) ambition to "represent the public" (foreword to Trust in Charities 2018).
The problem is that it is a small body of appointees who have no legitimacy as representatives. And the pedigree of its chair, Baroness Stowell, as former leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, is distinguished in its own way, but hardly the ideal qualification for being the representative of the people.
So when the Commission talks confidently about public expectations of charities, it must rely very heavily on commissioned research carried out by Populus as interpreted by the Commission and published in July 2018.
Unfortunately, however, the Commission, especially its chair, has contracted the habit of making large generalisations about what "the public" (as if it were a monolith) expects of "charities" (as if they were not endlessly diverse) which are not supported by this relatively thin research base.
Insights not highlighted by the Commission
Let us pause to remind ourselves of some of the clear insights from this research that the Commission seems not too keen to highlight:
- Most of the public have little or no idea what is a charity and what isn't. A sample of 2000 identified no more than about nine household names when asked what they thought of when they encountered the word "charities". Populus warned that this limitation must be borne in mind when interpreting what the public think about "charities". This is a rickety basis for generalisations about what the public expects of charities in general.
- The behaviour of charities (as reported by the media) is by no means the only driver of trust or mistrust of charities. Important factors include age: young people (18 to 24) are much more likely to trust charities than those over 55; and, especially, familiarity with charities: people are much more likely to trust a charity they know. Another factor now acknowledged by the Commission is the general growth of distrust towards institutions in our society. The statement in the Introduction to Trust in Charities 2018, that "Trust is earned, or lost, through behaviour" is therefore seriously simplistic.
- Even in the last few scandal-hit years, a majority of the sample (in 2016, the year when the overall measure of trust dipped, it was 67 per cent) has maintained or in a few cases increased their trust in charities. Only a minority, who in general are less familiar with charities, say their trust has decreased.
- Only a minority (41 per cent) within that minority say their loss of trust has led them to donate less.
- By far the most important reasons people give for donating to a charity are belief in the cause, and belief that the charity is making a difference - a reminder, if we needed it, that people give to a cause and a particular charity, not to "charity" in general.
"Findings" that the Commission is trying to draw - wrongly
Now we turn to some of the conclusions that the Commission's leadership has sought to draw and highlight from the research. In a speech to some women charity leaders on 10 December 2019, the chair said: "We know that people have clear expectations that charity [she means the work of charities] should be distinct from, different to, other types of endeavour." Because charities are seen as so special, "people" or "the public" expect charities to behave especially well, selflessly, and show a spirit of charity - respect, compassion and care for others - emanating from them in the way they behave and go about their work.
That is not what the research shows. Populus asked its 6 focus groups in 2018 (of eight or nine people each) for reactions to two statements about the standards to which charities should be held. One was: "Charities have to live up to the same standards as the rest of us" (my italics). This commanded assent from some in all the groups, and it was the only statement shown to the two London groups. That obviously does not support Baroness Stowell's claim of distinctiveness. The other statement, which was overall more popular with those who saw it in Taunton and Manchester was: "Charities are held to higher standards that reflect the importance of the work they do" (my italics). This does not say that the standards should be higher than for those in other fields of important work - it links the high standards to the importance of the work. Hence, individuals in the focus groups commented, those who do important work with vulnerable people, such as those who work in alcohol or drug clinics, have to show high standards in the same way that we expect high standards of doctors and the police. Thus, the chair’s inference that the public expects higher standards of behaviour from charities than from other sectors is unsupported by the research.
Take another example from the same address. "People want to see that what goes on in a charity is motivated by the same spirit of charity that prompts them to volunteer at a shelter on Christmas Day, or sacrifice a luxury for themselves to make a larger Christmas donation". You will find no evidence for this assertion in the Charity Commission's research. The Trust in Charities research of July 2018 showed that the most popular reason its sample of 2000 donated to charity was belief in the cause, followed by a belief that the charity made a positive difference. Trailing behind that was the belief that the charity was doing good work in the UK. So far as I can see, nobody at all said that it was because they were looking for and recognised the spirit of charity or specially good behaviour.
When asked a more specific question about what was most important to their trust and confidence in charities - not the same question as what they are most looking for generally – 37 per cent of respondents said it was knowing whether or not a reasonable percentage of donations got through to the end cause, 36 per cent chose whether the charity made a positive difference to the cause, while only 15 per cent chose whether the charity had honest and ethical fundraisers and 8 per cent whether the charity was well managed. Overwhelmingly, this suggests, it's the cause that matters. This does not support the assertion that what they are looking for is the spirit of charity or a special ethos.
This picture does not change fundamentally when the groups are prompted separately to give a score out of 10 to indicate the importance for trust of various factors put in front of them. The winner with an average of 8.8 was transparency about where the money goes. The next most popular factor (8.5) was that the charities should be "true to their values", which had not featured in the previous exercises. There is no evidence that they thought this was unique to charities: which institutions should not be "true to their values"? Why would these values be different from the Nolan principles of public life (see below)? Moreover, not only transparency about the use of money, but also efficient use of resources, being well governed and well managed, demonstrating a positive difference and being expert, capable and skilled, all attracted the same order of support (from 8.4 to 8.0) - nothing "distinct" and unique to charities there.
What the focus groups said about culture and behaviour
Now let us look at what else the groups said about charities' culture and behaviour, mostly in the context of their views on what the regulator (about which most of them previously knew little or nothing) should be doing.
In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, some said that charities should treat vulnerable people with dignity and respect. One person in one focus group is quoted as saying "I want charities to improve their morals really and be held accountable, to be made an example of". One other said ambiguously "Check the charity is run properly - it's a moral thing." But most of the references to morals and behaviour relate explicitly to their concerns about proper use of money for the cause. For instance: "We expect charities to work with integrity. There should be guidelines on best practice, on all sorts of things: staffing, money, so they're not being wasteful". Or again: "[The Charity Commission] should be checking the books, finding where money is spent." Typical suggestions were that the Commission should assess how well charities were spending money on the cause as opposed to themselves, crack down on those who were found not to be helping people in need, check Trustees were fit and proper people to run the charity, and seek out evidence that a charity was actually having an impact.
In so far as there were - relatively sparse - mentions of organisational behaviour and culture, there is nothing here that is not in the Nolan principles of public life that apply to the entire civil service, local government, police, courts and probation services, all other public bodies and all health, education, social and care services. A reminder: the Nolan principles, articulated in 1995, are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. To hear a few focus group participants naming a few of these does not mean that they are asking for something special of charities because they think charities are different and the spirit of charity is special.
In fact, since most if not all of the few big name charities they have mainly in mind deliver public services via government contracts, they are already explicitly bound by these Nolan principles anyway.
Summary of what the research shows...
What all this does illuminate is that that a significant number of respondents were worried that very big charities might be spending too much money on themselves rather than the end cause and people in need. This tipped over in some cases into what the chair has called "so-called myths" and what the rest of us call myths, such as "The management and the people who run the charities take all the money" (male volunteer in Taunton). It confirms that open information and explanation about the use of money, and evidence of impact, are perceived as helpful to the trustworthiness of a charity (as is surely true of many other organisations). It confirms that people take a dim view if a charity is found guilty of deliberate mismanagement, eg not to be helping people in need and serving the personal interests of staff or trustees instead. If they do that kind of thing they should be held to account: big household name charities are not seen as above the same sort of accountability that pertains in other sectors. On these largely unexceptionable matters the research adds some colour and insight.
...and does not show
What it does not show is that these people think charities should be held to higher standards than other sectors. It does not show that they are looking for a special spirit of charity that should be the distinctive hallmark of the sector. It does not show that declining (or, as it is now, plateauing) trust and confidence as measured in this research is the main or even a major driver of public behaviour in donating time or money to charities. It does not show that the special behaviour of charities is a salient feature of public expectations, as distinct from a charitable cause that attracts them, an ability to advance it and make an impact, and careful and transparent use of the money entrusted to a cause. There is some evidence, though quite sparse, of assumed principles of behaviour that have for many years been expected across the whole public sector and beyond.
This modest research base is not terra firma on which to base large generalisations about what the diverse multitudes comprising "the public" expect of the 168,000 varied bodies comprising the charity sector. Even within these limitations, the research does not support the particular generalisations that its chair is making. I really hope that the Commission's leadership will stop repeating these unfounded assertions, which don't do much for much-needed trust and confidence in the Charity Commission itself.
Andrew Purkis is a charity trustee and has been chair or vice chair of six UK charities, and chief executive of others and was a board member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010.