What we think the culture secretary got wrong about charities

In the Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Dowden claimed that charities were being ‘…hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials’, ultimately suggesting they were being distracted from their core missions and wasting huge sums of money in the process. 

We agree with the Secretary of State that charities and volunteers play an important part in our ‘national fabric’ and that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on their vital contribution to individuals, families, and communities. 

But our agreement with the culture secretary is limited. 

Charities will always focus on delivering powerful change

Last year, with our infrastructure partners, we campaigned for the £750m emergency support that DCMS established to support charities and, as we did then, we thank the government for this vital support. But the Secretary of State is wrong in his description of charities as too reliant on government funding. 

Our data shows that 29% of all charity income comes from the government (both central and local), compared to 48% coming directly from the public. Where charities are more reliant, they are often delivering competitively tendered commissioned services on behalf of local government. And they are uniquely placed to do so given their role within communities.

In contrast to government spending, donations from the public have significantly increased in recent years. The public are generously contributing more than ever to the charities and causes they care about, with their trust in charities at a six-year high. 

With that income, charities spend their money wisely with the vast proportion of income (85%) being spent on charitable activities to deliver their mission. The remaining money is spent on important work, such as safeguarding, fundraising, and governance. There is no evidence to support the claim that charities ‘waste large amounts of time and money’ by raising issues of concern to the communities they support.

We must all reject the notion that charities in receipt of funding – whether that’s from the government, the National Lottery, or any other funder – should stay silent on issues that are pertinent to their mission. To do so would be to compromise the very independence that characterises the role of charities. 

Charity regulators are required to be a neutral arbiter

Alongside this was the clear suggestion that the new chair of the Charity Commission, currently being recruited, would be required to ‘harness the oversight powers of the Commission’ to shift charities away from such ‘woke’ work.   

For some charities, the best way to achieve their mission is by raising issues that can to others be seen as challenginga perspective that the former Conservative Culture Secretary pointed out on Twitter. While we agree that charities must be mindful of a range of views and remain true to their mission, we are concerned about the expectations being levelled at our regulator by the minister. 

The Charity Commission plays a vital role in supporting our thriving voluntary sector. We want a strong regulator that supports charities, enables them to work effectively and upholds the interests of the public. Like the charities it oversees, the Commission must be above party politics. Its strength is as a neutral arbiter, showing no fear or favour. Expecting the Charity Commission to go beyond its role – a role that is defined in law – will harm the new chair’s independence and is setting them up to fail.   

As we have seen from the results of Charity Commission investigations into the National Trust, Barnardo’s, and the Runnymede Trust, charities are considering contentious issues carefully and in a balanced way that benefits future society for all. Where charities generate concern and upset, they will need to explain themselves to the public and those that support their work. Only if those concerns relate to charity law and governance, will they have to explain themselves to the Commission. 

When charities cross the regulatory line, we expect the Charity Commission to act, but its role is not to direct what the response of charities should be to issues that affect the people and communities they support. The role of the Commission is to regulate in line with the laws made in parliament. Within that framework, it is not for the government or Commission to tell trustees what is best for their charity or those they serve. 

Partnership relies on mutual trust

Looking back, it would be difficult to argue against the societal benefit achieved through the suffrage movement, civil rights, and LGBTQ+ equality, alongside many other issues that have impacted (and continue to impact) marginalised groups throughout history. Addressing issues that create gaps and inequalities in our society is the core purpose of many charities.  

We want to build strong relationships with the government and have been working closely on things like the Levelling Up agenda and Future of Volunteering. We are – and can be – valuable partners in achieving the government’s priorities. 

But partnership relies on mutual understanding and respect. We are always available to help ministers, MPs, and officials understand the work of charities, how they run, and the legal and regulatory environment in which they operate. 

We will continue to work in the best interests of our members in seeking a positive and constructive relationship with the government and the Charity Commission. The work charities and volunteers carry out to support people and communities is too important to not. We will robustly defend their freedoms and rights. It would be against our charitable purpose to stay silent.  

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