Gareth Jones: The new Commission chair risks repeating old mistakes 

16 Apr 2018 Voices

Baroness Stowell has highlighted building public trust as a key priority, but she is already at risk of undermining it, says Gareth Jones.

Baroness Stowell speaking at the NCVO Annual Conference 2018

Credit: NCVO/Rebecca Stowell

Baroness Stowell gave her first substantial speech as chair of the Charity Commission this week, and there is no doubt what she sees as her key priority. 

We have a problem, she says. The sector is no longer trusted automatically by the public. She says the fundamental aim of the Commission is to rebuild trust in charities as vehicles for charitable endeavour.

It is not hard to see why she and others are concerned. This year’s revelations about sexual misconduct at Oxfam, Save the Children and other charities provoked many people to be shocked and appalled. 

No matter that safeguarding the actions of employees in places like Haiti is inherently challenging, or that people working in charities are human beings, some of whom can fall victim to the same moral failings as those in other sectors. 

The charity sector’s public image has been crafted via decades of shiny fundraising messages that have failed to explain the complex realities of running a charity or the challenges that come with them. 

And not for the first time in recent years, this has been punctured. 

Trust measures

That said, there is some cause to be cautious about “the decline in public trust”. 

Polls on this issue need to be taken with a pinch of salt, as the way people respond when asked a question about trust by a pollster is mostly to do with vague impressions they hold at a particular moment in time. 

A recent scandal at a large charity may give someone a bad feeling at that moment, but it won’t necessarily affect their likelihood to give money, volunteer or use the services of a different charity when it comes down to it. And the feeling they have about a charity may not last.

But regardless of these whys and wherefores, it is right for charities to continually seek to maintain high standards and to be explaining to the public what they do. 

Or as Stowell puts it, to be able to prove that “no matter how you slice a charity, what you’ll find is a relentless focus on its charitable purpose”.

Public facing role

There is an area, however, where Stowell must be careful with the trust narrative she is creating, and that is with the public itself. 

As yet she has only raised this issue in front of MPs at her pre-appointment hearing and at the NCVO Annual Conference. 

But her comments have already been picked up in the national press, leading to yet more negative stories. As a result, she risks merely enforcing in people’s minds that there is a public trust problem, and that there must be pervasive problems across the sector that have caused it. 

Counterintuitively, by addressing the problem of public trust, she could end up exacerbating it.

This may seem speculative given that she has yet to give a media interview. But unfortunately, her predecessor William Shawcross did not excel in this area. 

Time and again he gave fuel to the fire of the charity sector’s critics via interviews in national newspapers, pontificating on subjects as diverse as chief executive salaries, the RSPCA’s “zeal for prosecutions”, the death of Olive Cooke, and terrorist abuse of charities

We have seen similar with the Fundraising Regulator. Its chair Lord Grade has called charities “laggards” for failing to sign up for the fundraising levy, criticised “rogues and cowboys” among third-party fundraising agencies, falsely implied that the digital fundraising platform JustGiving doesn’t disclose its fees, and repeatedly referred to a “Wild West of fundraising”.

All of these opinions may or may not be have been true or fair. But making critical remarks to the national press gives them power and currency in the eyes of the public. 

If Shawcross and Grade wanted to get a point across to the charity sector, they should have spoken to the sector directly. 

Representation dilemma

Stowell's language has so far been more considered than the peacocking of Shawcross and Grade. 

But it is worth highlighting one quote from her recent speech, where she said that “the Commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you”. 

The second part of that equation is fair enough. However, if she ignores the first part, then she will be ignoring the reality and responsibility of the Commission’s public position and influence, and undermining her whole agenda.

Gareth Jones is editor of Charity Finance magazine

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