Kirsty Weakley: New commission board members have a tough job

01 Dec 2016 Voices

Charity Commission building

Fergus Burnett

Some progress has been made in rebalancing the board of the Charity Commission, but probably not enough, writes Kirsty Weakley. 

Yesterday afternoon the Department for Culture, Media and Sport finally appointed three new people to the Charity Commission board. 

Fresh blood was much needed. Earlier this year we reported widespread concern that the lack of diversity on the board and near absence of experience of running charities was creating problems. 

Chief among the concerns was that the current make-up of the board and the way it was appointed left it open to accusations of political bias. Sir Stuart Etherington led calls for reform of the process to give Parliament a greater role in the appointments process. 

The sector was not happy. And without change the Commission’s board risked losing the confidence of those it regulates.  

So when it was announced that the Commission would be recruiting three new trustees – one to add more digital skills as recommended by the National Audit Office, one to replace security expert Peter Clarke who stood down, and the third a charity sector expert after Claire Dove’s term concluded - the hope was that this was an opportunity to inject a bit more sector experience. 

Shortly after she left Dove said publicly that the board needed more voices from the sector. But for the last two and a half months the government has been tight-lipped about who is joining the board.  

Is the board more diverse?

In a way the board is a bit more diverse. Two of the three new appointees are women meaning that three women now sit on the eight-strong board. This is still below the government’s target of having an equal gender balance.  

The individuals appear to have had productive and successful careers in their respective fields and it is too soon to make fair judgements about their competencies. 

But the new appointees were all educated at either Oxford or Cambridge.

Of course this may reflect a wider problem encouraging people from a more diverse range of backgrounds to apply for public appointments, and is something that the government has been looking at. 

The sector itself was criticised only this week for not having enough black and ethnic minority trustees – so this problem isn’t unique to any one sector. 

Does the board now have more knowledge of charities?

In short yes. But it could still do with more. 

Two of them hold trusteeships and, Catherine Quinn has also worked in the sector. This is a welcome development, but I'm not sure it goes quite far enough. 

This was a big concern for the sector’s representative bodies and the early reaction from the sector’s umbrella bodies has not been terrifically enthusiastic. 

There is still a concern that the board does not have anyone who has run a large, high-profile charity with fundraising and campaigning activity. 

Again this could be because everyone who works, or has recently worked, in the sector didn’t want the job and didn’t apply. 

The Office for Civil Society hasn’t responded to a request for the number of applications.

It feels to me as though just enough has been done to address concerns, but just enough and no more. There is scope to appoint one more person to the board if desired - maybe the OCS should think about this? 

The sector is not a government priority

More concerning is that the way the process was handled by government suggests that the Charity Commission and the sector is quite far down its list of priorities. 

Sector leaders could not have made their concerns clearer but the government doesn’t appear to have taken much notice. 

It left it to the last minute to begin the search for new board members – despite the NAO specifically saying the Commission needed to find someone with digital skills on its board. 

Its new board members were due to start on 1 September. The OCS insisted that there was no delay to the process but for the past two and a half months the sector has been left wondering when or if it would  ever make an announcement.

While a certain amount of confusion is perhaps understandable in the wake of moving the OCS from the Cabinet Office to DCMS, other appointments have been announced over the past few weeks by DCMS, including new members to the boards of Ofcom and the Royal Armouries. 

I can’t help but feel that this indicates the Charity Commission was a fair way down the ‘to do’ list in its new home.

More on