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‘Trust me, I’m a charity…’

I attended my first NCVO conference on Monday, and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it tremendously. I was impressed by the passion and breadth of knowledge on display—and by the sense of solidarity that is a vital, almost palpable, characteristic of the sector.

I was also impressed by the contribution made by another NCVO neophyte—Baroness Stowell of Beeston, the recently appointed Chair of the Charity Commission. (I’ll hold my hand up here and admit that I’ve got a soft spot for Stowell and the tenacity she displayed piloting the equal marriage legislation through the House of Lords in 2013.)

If you haven’t already read or watched her speech, I’d urge you to do so. Considering—or maybe despite?—the furore caused by her appointment, I thought that she demonstrated a quick command of the issues facing us. She also signalled what could be a new, deft touch to Commission-sector relations with the announcement that she’s pushed back the consultation on charity charging to the autumn, presumably to give her pause to reflect on what she wants the Commission to stand for on her watch.

The most arresting section of her address, however, dealt with the issue of falling trust and confidence in the sector. Quoting the early findings of ongoing research being conducted by the Commission, Stowell told us ‘that people now trust charities no more than they trust the average stranger in the street.’

Whether or not we think that this is a worthwhile metric for comparison (and I guess we’ll have to wait until the Commission publishes its research), we have to agree that, in light of recent scandals if nothing else, we still have a problem on our hands. And with both political and press appetites whetted by the prospect of charity scandals to come, it’s going to be a topic of the utmost importance in the months and years ahead.

It was disappointing, then, that the very first response to Stowell on Monday was from a delegate bemoaning the fact that she had failed to adequately champion the sector and, indeed, had come to attack and undermine the good work we’re all doing. Similar, albeit more nuanced, criticism has subsequently surfaced in the trade press.

Don’t get me wrong, I reserve the right on behalf of NPC to provide criticism of the Commission if/when we think it’s warranted but, as a relative newcomer, the expectation that the sector’s regulator should also act a cheerleader strikes me as odd. The Commission, and Stowell as it’s Chair, aren’t there to serve the sector—they’re there to serve the public. It’s a body funded by the public—and the public need to know that it’s doing it’s job on their behalf.

It’s good that Stowell has pledged herself to helping, but ultimate responsibility for rebuilding and maintaining trust across the sector lies with us. Instead of decrying the Commission for talking us down we should be thinking about what we can do collectively to push public confidence back up. A good place to start would be tackling the dissonance between the public’s perception of charities and our perception of ourselves. NCVO has done some interesting work on this, and the growing divergence of views over the importance of trust formed a major part of our State of the Sector research in 2016 and 2017.

I think that the nub of this is not that that the public has a problem with charities being run on a scale and level of professionalism similar to those of big businesses; the issue is whether we’ve adopted the supposed values of those businesses—and are open about it, as a number of charities are—or share and promote values that are more, well charitable.

Take recent questions over potential safeguarding issues in Oxfam’s charity shops. I understand that, even though they are free for volunteers, it’s a time consuming administrative cost to DBS check the volunteers in every shop. But using a legal loophole to avoid a measure which helps keep people safe is the kind of thing rapacious capitalists are supposed to do, not the nice, fluffy charity sector. Just yesterday I received an email informing me that the Chair of Save the Children International resigned following the beginning of a Charity Commission review of safeguarding. To quote a pretty horrid phrase, but one that seems to be gaining traction (ditto) in the sector, we have to ‘live our values.’

Regulation in the charity sector should be a bare minimum—as it should be in every regulated sector. It’s on us to do better—and to be able to have a more grown up discussion about how we get there. We should look at Stowell’s appointment as an opportunity to come together and reflect upon on how we hammer this one out and rebuild some trust between us and the Commission in the process.

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