The Charity Commission’s ‘Statement of Strategic Intent’: what it says, and what it should say

Yesterday the Charity Commission published its strategy for the next five years (2018-2023). This is the first major act by the Commission’s new chair Baroness Tina Stowell.

The launch was not only an opportunity for her to set out her vision for the future of the Commission, but also to frame her relationship with the sector and how she would distinguish herself for her predecessor.

In particular, it was refreshing and good to hear the recognition that the Commission needs to work in partnership with the sector, and that there needs to be better cooperation not only across government but also with charities.

 

 

 

 

The strategy itself is high level and aspirational. The Commission has set itself the purpose ‘to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society’.

Five strategic objectives

This purpose translates into five strategic objectives. These necessarily flow from the Commission’s statutory objectives:

  • The public confidence objective
  • The public benefit objective
  • The compliance objective
  • The charitable resources objective
  • The accountability objective

However the strategy raises the bar on each of these, setting the Commission’s task as regulating beyond legal requirements and shaping its role into something different. It wants to be more than a ‘statutory regulator’.

So what we now have is this:

Holding charities to account

The Commission wants to hold charities accountable for ‘the privilege of charitable status’, so they are meeting the expectations of the public where these are higher than what compliance with the law entails.

Dealing with wrongdoing and harm

The Commission wants to be able to anticipate things going wrong in a charity and intervene at an earlier stage to prevent wrongdoing. Much of this will depend on better use of data so the Commission can detect trends and take proactive action. Although it does beg the question whether the necessary data is available to the Commission, and if not how it will access it.

Informing public choice

One of the key statutory functions of the Commission is to maintain the register of charities so it is accurate and up to date. Considering the 166,000 charities on there, this is already a huge task (and not always met). Nevertheless the Commission is adding to its responsibilities, by saying that it also wants to help identify gaps or duplication.

The statement also refers to ‘the information that matters to the public’ – but we know that this isn’t necessarily the same information that is currently on the register.

Giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed

The Commission’s role in providing guidance to trustees on their legal duties is an important one, especially for small charities that don’t have access to legal advice. It is also the only one that can give trustees authority to act in certain circumstances. But the Commission has often been tempted into giving advice on good practice, rather than focusing on making sure charities meet their regulatory requirements and providing the right guidance for them to do that, and seems to be doing so again.

Keeping charity relevant to today’s world

This is where the Commission is stepping in completely new territory: showing aspirations of shaping the policy and public debate about charity, and leading the thinking about the future of charities and their activities.

This ‘raising of the bar’ is perhaps understandable given the problems our sector has faced in recent years, but it is not without problem or question. As a statutory body the Commission needs to be consistent, and act where it has the licence to do so on the basis of the law. Yet the Commission in effect now wants to intervene in areas where it doesn’t necessarily have the relevant regulatory powers.

Resources

Furthermore, the story of late has been that the Commission is under-resourced even to fulfil its basic statutory duties. We know that it is already struggling, and that many charities are frustrated by the time it takes to complete key tasks such as registering new charities or carrying out investigations.

It’s not surprising then that the strategy – and the accompanying speech by Baroness Stowell – have been seen in part as an opening salvo in a negotiation for greater government funding following several years of cuts which have weakened the commission.

But the forthcoming spending review is predicted to be one of the most difficult ones yet, particularly following the spending commitments the government has recently made. And the recent injections of funding by Treasury have been granted on condition that the Commission consults on charging the sector for regulation. A solution that may appeal to both the Commission and Treasury as more sustainable source on income, but that comes with its own set of challenges and costs.

In the context of this reality, the Commission is going to have to decide where to focus its resources. The alternative – setting out a wider work programme and telling charities to pay for it – is not a settled issue, and by some distance.

So what should the Commission focus on?

The Commission’s ambition is laudable, and one can detect a sense of wanting to be ‘more than just a regulator’.

But let’s not forget that the Commission is highly regarded worldwide as an example to follow precisely because of its regulatory functions and its unique role in ensuring compliance with charity law. And although it is doing a good job, there is room for improvement on what are the basics of regulation: carefully assessing whether it is registering the right organisations, maintaining the register adequately, ensuring charities are reporting on their finances and on public benefit accurately and properly. But the number one priority is making sure trustees understand what their legal duties are and how they can meet them. Too often we hear that trustees can’t get basic advice or information from the Commission.

When done efficiently and effectively, these will go far in achieving the Commission’s ambitions on public trust.

But it’s not just up to the Commission: Baroness Stowell is right to say that we have a collective responsibility here. NCVO’s work on a Code of Ethics for the charity sector is meant to offer charities a framework to recognise and resolve ethical issues and conflicts, going beyond legal requirements. Our popular and rigorous quality standards already underpin many charities’ work. We have also helped develop a strong, clear Charity Governance Code – in favour of which the Commission withdrew its own guidance. We will continue to play our part and carry on with all the work that we have been doing over the years to raise standards within our charities.

 

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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