What were the biggest charity stories of 2021?

14 Dec 2021 Voices

Kirsty Weakley looks back at the most important news stories and trends of 2021

New Charity Commission chair (finally) 

Early in the year we bid farewell to Baroness Stowell as chair of the Charity Commission. Her public statements won over few sceptics during her three-year term, and her own parting shot was to tell the sector that she wished she had been more outspoken.

For most of the year, the Commission was led by an interim chair, but finally Martin Thomas was confirmed as the next chair last week

With solid experience chairing charity boards, and a reluctance to get involved in culture war narratives, Thomas appears to be everything that the sector has been calling for. 

As Andrew Purkis, a former Commission board member, wrote yesterday: “It feels as if a grown-up has entered the arena.”

Culture wars continue

During the year there were a number of times when charities were, often unfairly, embroiled in so-called culture wars, as critics sought to paint legitimate campaigning or educational activity as somehow politically motivated. 

For example, a group of backbench Conservative MPs complained about Barnardo's, after the charity shared tips about how parents and guardians could discuss racial discrimination with children. 

Later in the year, MPs complained about the Runnymede Trust’s response to the report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED), the Sewell report, and questioned whether it was engaging in lawful political activity.  

In both cases the Charity Commission concluded that trustees had acted properly. 


After just 18 months as chief executive Karl Wilding announced he was leaving NCVO. Shortly afterwards a report detailing the extent of discrimination and bullying at the umbrella body was leaked to Third Sector and one of its trustees quit saying, “the change I seek is beyond this role”.

NCVO’s interim CEO, Sarah Vibert, and chair, Priya Singh, promised to get its house in order, and carried out an inquiry. 

The story also sparked a wider debate about racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism across the sector, and the campaign group #NotJustNCVO emerged to offer people support and share experiences. 

CIOF sexual harassment 

In the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, fundraisers demanded answers from their representative body, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIOF), about the slow progress on sexual harassment cases under investigation. 

Throughout CIOF was criticised over the tone of its apologies and delays in responding to people involved. 

Eventually, the CIOF completed an investigation, expelled a member and acknowledged organisational failings. 

Its leadership apologised and promised to improve and strengthen its processes. A new permanent chief executive joined this autumn and the body is currently recruiting a new chair. 

Levelling Up 

If you haven’t heard the term “levelling up” this year then you must have been living in a cave. 

It clearly sounds like something the charity sector should be at the heart of shaping. Policy is being shaped by people like Andy Haldane and the MP Danny Kruger, who both have an understanding of the sector and command respect within it. 

However, detail is sketchy. The whitepaper has been delayed again and so far the available funding has been directed at large infrastructure projects, not capacity building in communities. 

New ways of working 

As we moved into the second year of the pandemic, charities adapted to new pressures and requirements with new ways of working. 

Many opted for a hybrid approach when it came to the return to the office. In a blog, Ropinder Gill from Lymphoma Action, explained that staff wellbeing was at the centre of decision her charity was making.

“Whilst on the whole, people do feel productive and effective working from home, we still need to acknowledge that some things are done better face to face and that remote working is not appealing or healthy for everyone,” she said. 

“So, as we move forward, we feel it is important to reflect on our learnings and strike a balance.” 

For RSPCA this led to the decision to put its head office up for sale

The pandemic also forced, or accelerated, restructures and led to redundancies at many large charities. 

At Civil Society Media’s Charity Finance Summit in the autumn Richard Bray, a senior leader in the finance department at Cancer Research UK, explained how the charity aims to keep to a smaller workforce and ensure that its resources are being used effectively

Watch the session again below.  

Charity shops bounce back 

After a grim 2020, the gradual relaxing of restrictions through the spring and summer of 2021 saw charity shops report a spike in visitors. 

In May, British Heart Foundation, Barnardo’s and Sense were among the charities that told Civil Society News that their shop sales were substantially higher this April and May when compared to the same period before the pandemic struck.

And analysis of over half a billion transactions by Nationwide members showed that customers contributed £134m to charities between April and June, up 16% compared with the first three months of the year

However, it’s not all good news, the Charity Retail Association warned that volunteer levels were 20% down on pre-pandemic levels, as it launched recruitment drive in the summer.  

ESG comes to the fore

Elsewhere some charities have been increasingly focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, particularly through a responsible investment lens. 

In March we reported that Foundation Scotland has moved £20m of its endowment into funds focused on social impact. Angus Tulloch, one of the foundation’s trustees, said that there was “a reasonable chance that long-term investment performance could indeed be enhanced” through the strategy. 

Later in the year the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation allocated £10m of its investment portfolio to pilot impact investing.

COP26 also focused attention on environmental issues. 

In the spring, ACEVO’s climate-crisis member working group has launched seven sustainability principles for civil society leaders and urged other leaders to respond to the climate emergency. And in November Christian Aid pledged to halve its carbon emissions by the end of the decade

Emerging philanthropists 

To end on an uplifting note, 2021 also saw the emergence of a number of new philanthropists, combining their social conscience with raising money. 

Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford became the youngest person to top The Sunday Times Giving List, after he helped to raise £20m for FareShare. Another footballer, Raheem Sterling, launched his own charity in November. 

In the summer, Sir Lewis Hamilton, launched a £20m foundation to help young people from underrepresented groups. 

Outside of sport the actor Michael Sheen announced that he had turned himself into a social enterprise by using what he earns from acting to support causes he cares about.

He told the Big Issue: “I’m at the stage of my life and career where I have a window of opportunity that will probably never be this good again. I’m able to get people in a room, I can open doors. I don’t want to look back and think, I could have done something with that platform. I could have done something with that money.” 

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.


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