Policy, Management & leadership

Should popularity play a part in regulating charities?

Stephen Cook, author of What Have Charities Ever Done For Us? discusses what we need to look for in the next chair of the Charity Commission.

When answering questions after her final speech as chair of the Charity Commission of England and Wales, Baroness Stowell said in February that she had a message for her successor and everyone who worked in charities:

‘You will only achieve and deliver the full benefit that you exist to deliver with the full support of everybody. Never forget that, and never forget to take account of everybody in the way that you do your work.’

Taken literally, this seems like an impossible task. Does everyone have to fully support Oxfam, the British Boer Goat Society and Medway Men in Sheds before the regulator lends its approval? What about Circles UK, which works with sex offenders? And how would the Commission go about establishing whether or not everyone supported these and other charities?

It would be a different matter if Stowell had simply urged charities to make sure that they stay on the right side of the law and follow the extensive guidance that the Commission publishes to help them do so. ‘Everybody’ would surely support that principle, whatever their differences might be about the value and purpose of the 270,000-odd charities in England and Wales. Instead she seemed to see the work of charities as some kind of popularity contest.

But there is a sense in which the role of charities has always included taking up causes that went against the grain of society at the time, and campaigning to make them popular. Examples include the abolition of slavery, prison reform, animal and child protection, the emancipation of women and gay rights. The now-popular ban on smoking in public places, opposed by some politicians and vested interests at the time, was driven forward by charities.

In the Commission’s biennial survey of public opinion by Populus in 2020, there were further indications that abiding by the law and the rules may not be deemed sufficient. For the first time, respondents were asked whether the Commission should make sure that charities ‘fulfil their wider responsibilities to society rather than just making sure that they stick to the letter of the law.’ It also asked whether charities had a ‘collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charities more generally’. Fifty-three per cent of respondents said yes to the first question, sixty-three per cent to the second.

This concept of what ‘everybody’ or ‘the public’ expects from charities sidesteps the fact that people’s views vary considerably, according to their convictions and experience (and that their views can be spun by the use of leading questions). Different parts of the public expect different things, and to suggest that public opinion is homogeneous is surely an oversimplification. Even the ‘decent, respectable people’ that Stowell cited in her farewell remarks will have widely differing views on everything from capital punishment to global warming and the need for donkey sanctuaries.

The notion of regulating charities according to what the public expects began in 2015 under the regime of Stowell’s predecessor William Shawcross, when the commission put out a statement during a particularly controversial case saying that charitable funds should be used not only in accordance with a charity’s declared purposes but also ‘in the way that the public would expect.’ This has been a consistent theme during Stowell’s three years in office, expressed in phrases such as ‘legitimate public expectation of charity’.

Will this theme be taken forward by her successor, due to be appointed in the next couple of months? Or will someone be appointed who will set aside this highly contestable approach in favour of one that is more measured, discriminating, and better attuned to the world of charities? The appointment of Stowell was controversial and unanimously opposed by the public administration committee of MPs, in part on the grounds that she did not know enough about charities. She had been leader of the House of Lords and briefly a member of the Cabinet, but renounced the Conservative whip when she took up the Commission role.

Under the public appointments process, the panel considering the candidates is being chaired by two civil servants who share the job of Director General for Culture, Sport and Civil Society. One panellist is John Booth, a wealthy entrepreneur with a wide involvement in charities: his numerous trusteeships include the Tate, and donations by his own charitable foundation in 2020 included £2.5 million to the Prince’s Trust. In 2017 he made five donations to the Conservative Party, totalling more than £300,000.

Another member is Fionnuala Jay O’Boyle, who is Lord-Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast, founder of the Belfast Buildings Trust, a member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and a former trustee of two charities that merged to become The Prince’s Foundation. The third is Mike Ashley, an experienced accountant who was a member of the Commission board between 2014 and 2020.

The role of the panel is to submit a list of appointable candidates for decision by the relevant minister, Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The final interviews are at the end of May, and in the interim the Commission is being chaired by one of the board members, the lawyer Ian Karet.

The public appointments process has recently come under increasing scrutiny. The outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, said in a letter last year to Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that the central question was

‘the balance between ministerial involvement and appointment on merit…There are, however, signs that this balance is under threat – that some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies.’

When Stowell was appointed, Andrew Hind, a former chief of executive of the Charity Commission, was more forthright. He argued that, over four appointments, ‘we have moved from the chair of the Charity Commission being selected on merit, to a situation where the job appears to be little more than a party political appointment in the gift of the prime minister’.

It remains to be seen whether or not the coming appointment confirms that view.


About Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook is a journalist and author with extensive experience in national newspapers and magazines, including 18 years at The Guardian and many years at the helm of Third Sector Magazine. He has published five novels and two non-fiction books.