It first came to light in January 2014 that the Institute of Fundraising was exploring whether to apply to the Privy Council for a royal charter. Adrian Sargeant, the fundraising academic who was an IoF trustee at the time, told an audience in London that obtaining a charter would boost the reputation of fundraising and encourage charity trustee boards to take the profession more seriously.
In March this year, the membership body for fundraisers edged a step closer to this ambition when it submitted an initial inquiry, known as an informal memorandum, to the Privy Council to determine whether an official application might be successful. It is now awaiting a response.
Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF – who was initially reluctant to speak to Third Sector in case his comments were perceived as lobbying by the Privy Council – says it has been thinking about applying for a charter since 2012, when a consultation with members on future strategy indicated that this was an option it should explore.
The IoF board is also keen, he says: "The trustees think it will help the IoF to meet its objective of making fundraising a more developed profession and put it on the same standing as other chartered bodies." The IoF would like to emulate the chartered membership bodies for marketing, public relations and professional development, he says.
But not all IoF members are convinced that securing a charter is sensible. Jeremy Sparkes, a consultant specialising in major donor fundraising, says it could prove to be a Trojan horse and that a small number of other members feel the same.
His main concern is about governance. The Privy Council's website says that a chartered body "surrenders significant aspects of the control of its internal affairs to the Privy Council. This in effect means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body." Sparkes questions the wisdom of what he sees as ceding control of the IoF's governance to an external political body.
"Terms such as 'surrender', 'government regulation', 'internal affairs' and 'significant' are pretty strong and ring alarm bells for me, especially as a fundraiser," says Sparkes. "If politicians were to decide that it would be expedient for fundraising to be regulated differently, then the charter might provide them with a quick and effective way of doing it."
He says he put this concern to Lewis and the IoF's chair, Richard Taylor, and was told that the IoF plans to avoid ceding too much control by keeping all the specifics of its regulations outside the charter so they can be changed without permission from the Privy Council. Sparkes says he was told this was a common approach.
Lewis says that Sparkes is the only IoF member to have raised concerns about chartered status, although he says others have asked questions about the process and the costs involved.
Rather than giving the government the power to control fundraising, Lewis argues, a charter would do the opposite. "It would actually show constitutional support for fundraising because, to become a chartered body, we have to show we are operating in the public interest," he says.
He says chartered status would not change the IoF's governance significantly and would have no impact on the Code of Fundraising Practice, which would be kept outside the charter. He says the IoF currently needs the consent of its members and approval from the Charity Commission to change its articles of association; a charter would simply mean the approval of one extra party, the Privy Council.
Alastair McCapra, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, with whom Lewis has discussed the issue, agrees. The CIPD gained chartered status in 2005 and McCapra's former employer, the Landscape Institute, was also chartered. Charters do not give the government control, he says. "Ministers can bring in tougher regulation for fundraising through the back door if they want to, but they don't need a charter to do that," he says.
McCapra says the only time the Privy Council is likely to challenge an organisation's behaviour is if it receives a complaint that it is not fulfilling the requirements of its charter – if it has pledged to provide its members with education and training, for example, and has failed to do so. He says: "If that was the case, the Privy Council would call you in for a little chat and say: 'What are you doing? Why are you not delivering on this?' But I don't know of any incidents where that has ever happened."
Asked whether the Privy Council has ever exercised any power over the governing documents of a chartered body, a spokeswoman says it has no power that enables it to police chartered bodies: "The effect of a royal charter is to give a body the rights and powers of a natural person. That includes the right not to be subject to arbitrary interference by the executive."
Another aspect of chartered status that concerns Sparkes is the Privy Council's requirement that at least 75 per cent of members of chartered bodies be qualified to first-degree level. The IoF polled its members last year about their educational attainment - according to Lewis, exactly 75 per cent of the 1,000 members who responded to the survey indicated that they had a degree.
But Sparkes says that if fundraisers felt they had to have a degree to join the IoF, it could have a detrimental effect on its inclusiveness and diversity.
But Lewis says it is possible for chartered bodies to set their own criteria for members' education, which can include proof of professional experience or certain qualifications. Of the 75 per cent requirement, the Privy Council spokeswoman says: "The guideline is exactly that: a guideline. Each case is treated on its own merits and the criterion applies only when it is appropriate and relevant."
Lewis says that if the IoF were granted a charter, it would be able to offer chartered status to individual members, who would be called "chartered fundraisers". He says this status would be offered only to those with the requisite qualifications – perhaps a quarter of its 5,500 members.
It remains to be seen whether the Privy Council will give the IoF the green light to make an official application. Lewis says that if the IoF is told it has a chance of securing chartered status, it would not automatically apply. "We would need to consult our members first," he says. "Any decision would require a vote by them."
What are royal charters?
Royal charters have been used since the 13th century to create public or private corporations, including towns and universities, and to define their rights, privileges and powers. Nowadays, charters are granted by the Queen on the advice of the Privy Council, which has hundreds of members but whose business is in practice conducted by the Cabinet and other ministers with the advice of officials. Modern royal charters are mostly granted to professional institutions or charities – not necessarily when they are first established - that demonstrate pre-eminence, stability and permanence in their fields. Chartered bodies require the approval of the council to amend their charters and by-laws. There are currently more than 900 such bodies, including charities such as Sightsavers, the RNLI and the RSPB.