“May you live in interesting times” is likely to be an apocryphal phrase rather than a genuine Chinese curse. But these have nevertheless been “interesting times” not only in our turbulent national politics, but also in the charity sector, where challenge and scrutiny of how charities operate has never been far away.
It is important to emphasise the huge and vital role that charities continue to play in making our society and the world a better place. That sounds like the sort of thing a politician would say, but it's true.
However, in the spirit of honest reflection and desire for improvement, here’s a look back at the big talking points of 2019.
It is clear that we have reached a “new normal” in terms of media coverage of the charity sector. It is no longer a surprise when the Daily Mail or the Times writes a critical story about a charity.
Quite often these stories are unfair. The ritual examination of chief executive salaries at larger charities, this year provided by the Daily Mail, routinely fails to acknowledge the challenging nature of the job, the need for people at each level of a very large pyramid to be earning incrementally more than those at the level below, and the fact that salaries are at least to some degree organically set by the job market at the level necessary to attract high quality leaders. Indeed, every charity chief executive could definitely earn more in the private sector or probably even in the public sector.
However, although media stories are usually unfairly spun to inflict maximum damage on charities, there is often a kernel of truth or something worth reflecting on. Larger charities are not managing to explain to the public why their chief executives earn what they do. Marie Stopes wasn’t transparent about why its chief executive received a £200,000 bonus. The financial figures presented by Charity Commission register website can be confusing.
Charities haven’t always managed to respond to these sorts of stories effectively or quickly enough. So huge kudos goes to the comms team at RNLI, which issued a lengthy and detailed response to criticism of it funding work overseas. In the end, RNLI may actually have seen an increase in donations.
Another media storm had longer term ramifications. It’s hard to believe that the controversy around the actions of Oxfam staff in Haiti erupted nearly two years ago now, but such has been the challenge for charities of reviewing procedures that safeguarding remained a live issue for many charities throughout 2019.
All the attention came back to Oxfam though when both the Charity Commission and an independent commission released reports on the Haiti debacle and the charity’s operations more generally. Picking through the facts on this one has become almost as tricky as managing a huge charity like Oxfam itself, but it is clear that mistakes were made.
The independent commission's report might be the best place to go to for insight, and that called on the charity to “reinvent” its safeguarding systems.
The Charity Commission was also highly critical in its report, though some commentators have questioned whether the facts of the case justified quite such damning condemnation.
Meanwhile, Citizens Advice became emblematic of systemic racism in the charity sector when a training slide emerged containing crude stereotypes of the black community.
The charity was contrite, and in truth a lack of diversity is a sector-wide problem. After all, just 9 per cent of voluntary sector employees are from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, which is lower than both the public and private sectors. The problem is even more acute at senior level where just 3 per cent of CEOs are BAME.
Fatima Iftikhar, who first uncovered the Citizens Advice slides, launched the #CharitySoWhite campaign to highlight examples of structural racism in the charity sector. The campaign not only demonstrated the intentional and unintentional racism throughout the sector, but marked a more combative approach to the issue from those calling for change.
And why not – there has been much talk about diversity in the sector over recent years but apparently little progress.
Reasons to be cheerful
OK that was tough. Let’s finish on a positive note. Here are a few of the good things that we wrote about in 2019.
The Birmingham Museums Trust was recognised as overall winner at the Charity Awards for its work in engaging new audiences by choosing exhibits through community consultation.
Grantmaking by the largest foundations rose by 10 per cent.
Save the Children increased the amount of paternity leave it gives to staff to three months at full pay.
A new social change apprenticeship degree was launched to help develop a stronger workforce in charities.