Long before Gina Miller was hitting the headlines for her campaign to prevent Brexit, she was known in charity sector for her reports accusing charities of a lack of transparency, attacking charity shops and complaining that not enough money goes ‘to the cause’.
Almost exactly three years ago she published the first of two reports criticising large charities and demanding more transparency. She collaborated with the Telegraph newspaper to give them an exclusive on the story but much of the analysis was flawed and many people spent a lot of time trying to explain to her and the Telegraph why. Including us.
Eventually the Telegraph had to make significant changes to the story after charities complained to the press regulator, IPSO. For a while Miller has been occupied with other things, so her views on charities have taken a back seat.
But this week she gave an interview to the Financial Times to discuss her charitable work. I hesitated over clicking on the article for fear that Miller was once again going to steal Christmas with the publication of some new research criticising another corner of the charity sector.
Fortunately, there is no new research from the True and Fair Foundation, the charity Miller set up. She simply repeats many contradictory and bizarre claims. I’ve unpicked a few of them below.
‘Charities threatened me’
Miller told the FT that she’d had nine legal letters from big charities. “They think that they can threaten me. I’m just not the person they should ever pick on to try and bully.”
The piece doesn’t mention that Miller made legal threats of her to own towards academics at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School over its response to the charity's report.
In the event Cass made “one or two minor amendments” and a court case was averted.
On charity shops
One of the more bizarre quotes in FT is Miller’s confused case against charity shops.
Part of her argument is to question: “How much of it, for example, is going to the regional managers who are taking the best stock and running their own businesses on the side?”
If there’s evidence of widespread theft of donated goods then I’m sure charities, the Charity Commission, the Charity Retail Association and the police would love to hear it.
Her other gripe with charity shops is that they are expensive to run.
“It’s a way of them taking money to run their central overheads and that’s not going back to the end charitable works.”
But later she complains that charities have seen a decline in unrestricted funding, that can be used to cover core costs. So charities need more unrestricted funding but it shouldn't come from trading? Clear?
‘Too many charities are doing the same thing’
Miller thinks that the current culture encourages the formation of more and more charities because professional advisers “all want another foundation and another charity because guess what? We earn fees from it, from administrating that every year”.
She wants the Charity Commission to stop registering organisations if similar ones exist.
To make this happen some quite big changes to charity law would be needed.
At the same time she is still worried about large charities dominating the sector and calls on fellow philanthropists to redirect their funding to smaller charities.
Is she really calling for fewer, smaller charities?
‘Charities are still being run the way they were run a hundred years ago’
Miller complains that charities have not kept up with times and need to change the way they operate.
“The problem is, like any sector, it needs to evolve against a backdrop of contemporary issues and charities are still being run the way they were run a hundred years ago,” she said.
She’s right about the importance of evolving, and charities often move more slowly than some would like. But broadly the sector is embracing new technology, new ways of working of looking at how best to support people or drive change.
There have also been several changes to laws surrounding charity governance and accounting, which I won’t bore you with now, but basically mean it’s legally impossible to run a charity as if it was 1918.
‘There shouldn’t actually be a regulator’
Despite being an advocate for more transparency in the sector, Miller calls for the abolition of the very organisation that actually provides a lot transparency – the Charity Commission.
The regulator maintains a register of charities, publishes accounts and basic information and conducts research into the sector.
But Miller thinks it is surplus to requirements.
“There shouldn’t actually be a regulator, in my view, because [a charity is] just a different type of business.”
She thinks being regulated as businesses would increase scrutiny.
I’m here to tell you as someone who regularly reads both charity and company accounts that charity accounts give a much clearer, fuller picture of what is going on in an organisation.
The Commission says its research on public attitudes suggests that Miller’s view is “out of step with the vast majority of the British public”.
It’s maybe not surprising that Miller is not a fan of the Charity Commission, because in 2016 it issued the True and Fair Foundation with “formal regulatory advice” about its governance arrangements.
‘The job of charity is to do yourself out of a job’
Even though charities should be run and regulated like businesses, they should not behave like them, according to Miller.
“The job of a charity is to do yourself out of a job; that is it. It’s not complicated,” she aid.
This is a rather simplistic view. Yes there are some charities, mainly those addressing poverty or curable diseases, which should be doing this.
But what about theatres, youth groups or community centres? How is the National Trust going to go about doing itself out of a job? Persuade people it's a waste of time to visit stately homes?
PS - I tried to find out what the True and Fair Foundation has been up to since we last wrote about it. Uunfortunately its website was down. I'll keep trying.