Beryl Hobson, head of the Charity Commission's large charities division

The watchdog expects higher standards from the big players, she tells Paul Jump in our series on senior commission staff

Beryl Hobson
Beryl Hobson

A young man once wrote a will leaving his donkey to an animal rescue charity. But after his death in a motorbike accident, his mother insisted the donkey was hers - and was prepared to go to court to recover it. The charity's solicitor told it that although donkeys don't have ownership slips it would be wise to give the beast back if it didn't want to incur adverse publicity and further legal costs.

Not wishing to make an ass of itself, the charity checked with the Charity Commission that it could give away such a prize asset. The regulator reassured it that a donkey did not constitute charitable property.

Beryl Hobson laughs as she recalls this example of her work as head of the commission's large charities division, a role she has occupied since January 2008. The ebullient former insurance company marketer, primary care trust chair and interim charity manager clearly enjoys her job.

"It pulled together all my previous careers," she says. "They particularly wanted experience of governance, and I have been involved in charities all my life: hospital leagues of friends, local village halls and the like."

The large charities division deals with all charities whose annual income is more than £5m - except for schools, armed forces and NHS charities, which have their own commission teams.

"In terms of numbers - 1,200 - they constitute less than 1 per cent of the sector, but they account for more than 60 per cent of its income," says Hobson.

"We expect more of the larger charities, because if a big-name charity gets it wrong it affects a large number of beneficiaries and can affect people's perceptions of charities generally."

The large charities division is about enabling, says Hobson. Apart from sorting out disputes, its work includes clarifying objects, giving permission to go beyond objects, dealing with requests to pay trustees, giving advice on conflicts of interest and governance structures and, with the mergers team, overseeing mergers.

"We respond to 99 per cent of requests within 15 working days and get universally positive feedback," she says.

The division's staff - the equivalent of nearly 19 full-time posts - are split into three specialist teams. One deals with international, faith-based and young people's charities. Another handles medical research, disability, animal and conservation charities, and the third deals with the remainder under the banner of 'community'.

Hobson says the division is becoming more proactive: "We will be writing to all charities to make sure they know which team they are in and who is the contact person.

"The largest charities will have an individual account holder who will meet them once or twice a year so there are no surprises for us. We would rather know about an issue before we see it on the front of Third Sector."

No doubt. But this journalist feels like a big Eeyore for not getting hold of that donkey tug-of-love story.

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