Getting the words right with the Charity Commission

Debra Allcock Tyler's latest Third Sector article on the role of the Charity Commission in the wake of it's new leadership appointment

How do you pronounce the name Cillian?” I asked my partner Andy. “How do you spell it?” he responded. “C-I-L-L-I-A-N,” said I. “What nationality?” Andy asked. “Irish, I think,” I said. “Ah,” he replied. “It’s probably pronounced ‘Barry’ then.”

Which brings me to the Charity Commission. There has been a lot of debate about what its actual purpose is, and of late the answers have included words that smack of institutionalised wrongdoing: law enforcer, regulator, charity police. Worse, there have been accusations that in doing its “police” work it has become increasingly politicised and beholden to populist narratives or media pressure. There is a sense that it went from old-fashioned bobby on the beat, who understands the neighbourhood and resolves problems before they escalate, into a sort of charity Swat team acting on behalf of the government and Outraged of Tunbridge Wells.

This isn’t right. The commission’s purpose must not be to police charities in order to protect the public from them. Charities aren’t the enemy, for goodness sake. Too often we talk about charities and the public as if they’re entirely separate things. But they’re not. It’s the public that sets up charities and acts as trustees for them. It’s the public who fund them, volunteer for them and, ultimately, benefit from them. So surely the commission’s role is actually about enabling the public to come together in service of something they care about, within a framework that helps them do their work with integrity, in a way that other citizens can trust. In other words, it should be a positive force, not a negative one.

It’s in the phrase “that citizens can trust” where it seems to me the commission has taken a slightly unhelpful path, inadvertently reinforcing negative messages about charities, which I am sure was not the intent. There has been pressure to “prove” itself and to be seen to be tough on wrongdoing. So the general response seems to be to highlight failures rather than robustly defend the majority of perfectly well-run organisations. It’s understandable, but rather than uphold trust and confidence, I suspect this has had entirely the opposite effect. Has highlighting its policing role in fact fed exaggerated negative narratives about charities?

The commission knows how incredibly good most of our charities actually are and that our sector is the envy of other countries. It knows that because its staff are actually bloody good at their jobs. They have a deep and rich understanding of the challenges that human beings face when they try to work together on behalf of others. They know most charities are pretty well run with good intent, mistakes are rarely deliberate and, when things go wrong, there are ways to rectify them. If it’s deliberate wrongdoing (which is rare), the commission is robust and effective in dealing with it. With a new chair of the commission expected to start soon, that surely has to be the core message and focus under its new leadership.

I think we’ve been mispronouncing “Charity Commission”. Under its new leadership, it’s time to get the words right.

This article was first published on Third Sector.