Last week, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever All Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering, which provides a forum for discussing the issues affecting the voluntary and community sector. APPGs are informal groups of members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords with a common interest in particular issues.
This month’s meeting was the Charity Commission’s annual session, with special guests Chair of the Commission, Baroness Tina Stowell MBE, and CEO of the Commission, Helen Stephenson CBE. Here’s my round-up of the meeting:
A new strategy
The Commission began by discussing their new strategy which was unveiled in October this year. Stowell explained that to fulfil their statutory obligations as well as support charities to overcome their obstacles, the Commission has become a ‘purpose-led’ organisation, aiming for charities to have as much benefit as possible for society. The new strategy aims to ensure that charities are delivering their charitable purposes in a way that meets public expectation. It is the collective responsibility of both the regulator and charities themselves for the public to be consistently convinced that charities are doing this.
Following the initial opening introductions, the APPG was opened to the floor for questions. Baroness Pitkeathley kicked off by asking the Commission whether there was a coherent view of what is expected from charities and civil society due to the release of their strategy, the government’s Civil Society Strategy and Julia Unwin’s recent Civil Society Futures report, each bringing a different perspective to what the sector should look like. The Commission responded by explaining that all three reports have the shared vision for all charities to deliver as much benefit as possible. All three recognise how the context that charities are operating in has changed, for example the huge increasing demand for services (as mirrored by our Small Charity Index reports). The Commission said that although all three reports are from different views, they are all united and complementary in their visions.
Lord Hodgson posed the question to the Commission as to whether public trust in charities has decreased because charities are shifting to a different form of organisation, for example, of more staff/fewer volunteers.
The Commission responded that it is not useful to focus on specific reasons for the fall in public trust. The public are no longer giving charities the benefit of the doubt; instead a charity needs to show consistently that all of its decisions are for their beneficiaries.
Pauline Broomhead (CEO of the FSI) then went on to ask: as the three strategies (mentioned above) have all shown, charities are being required to play an increasing role in meeting more complex needs and significant gaps in service provision. What is the Charity Commission’s role in supporting the public to have trust in the sector, and understand that this is the context that charities are operating in? Stowell said that the Commission’s role is not to help the public to understand better, it is their role to help charities understand what it is that they need to show the public. She went on to say that the public want reassurance that if a charity is taking on a service, it is in the best interests for the people it is helping.
So what next?
The APPG ended with an air of confusion, as the Commission said that they are not only focused on whether charitable objectives are being met, but also on the way that a charity has met them. The Commission are now looking at behaviours which are outside the traditional regulator way of thinking. However, they stressed that they are not policing behaviours, but pointing to ways that charities can conduct themselves and increase confidence by holding the sector to account. Elizabeth Chamberlain (Head of Policy and Public Services, NCVO), noted that there is some confusion in the sector around what the Commission mean by public expectations and how charities should respond to them. It is difficult for charities to know where the line crosses between meeting their charitable objectives in the ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’ way if behaviours are outside of the regulator’s remit.
Attending the annual Charity Commission’s APPG was a great way to be introduced to the world of charity policy. It was useful to hear first-hand what the regulator’s strategy means to them and how they plan to implement it, such as by keeping charities relevant to today by pushing for increased diversity amongst Trustees. It will be interesting to see where the Commission’s strategy will take them.
Ellie Lynch is a Project Officer for the Policy & Special Projects team at the FSI.