Changes and announcements come thick and fast

The Institute of Fundraising has made the right decision, while a new government fund is launched and charges for regulation loom larger, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It’s been a big week for the charity world: events continue to move fast on the self-regulation of fundraising; the Cabinet Office has finally got around to launching the Local Sustainability Fund (at half the expected size); and charges for regulation by the Charity Commission have come another step closer.

First, fundraising, which remains perhaps highest on the sector agenda. Early in the week the Institute of Fundraising announced that it would bring in a rule requiring door-to-door fundraisers not to knock at houses displaying no-cold-calling signs. All told, this was surely the right – and courageous and principled – decision, given research from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association indicating that quite a lot of donations have actually come from households with stickers. A trade-off is being made: to gain and maintain public confidence, fundraisers might sometimes have to adopt practices that will reduce revenue: goodwill is sometimes worth more than gold.

Hard on the heels of that decision came another in the same field: the IoF, having recently announced that it will appoint an independent chair to its standards committee, has significantly raised the independent cohort on the committee itself. Representatives from the Fundraising Standards Board and the PFRA will become full members rather than just observers, as recommended in the consultancy report on self-regulation last year. But the IoF has also decided to appoint three lay members, which goes further than the consultants report, although it was mentioned in a Third Sector editorial last year. Details of how the appointments will be made remain to be announced, but the new 15-strong committee will be more likely to convince the outside world that the Code of Fundraising Practice is not drawn up primarily to legitimise whatever practices are found by fundraisers to be the most lucrative.

Meanwhile, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, evidently believes in continuing to strike while the iron is hot, and has now urged the use of sanctions by the FRSB, perhaps along the lines of the fines already levied by the PFRA; this might take a while to be accepted and organised. He is also calling for greater clarity and visibility for the self-regulatory system. This would be significantly advanced by speedy implementation of the existing plan in the consultancy report to set up a joint online portal for the three bodies. From the sidelines, Lord Hodgson, given to calling those bodies "alphabet soup", has weighed in again to call for single self-regulatory organisation. One way or another, it’s all go.

On another front, the mountain has laboured and brought forth a mouse: the Local Sustainability Fund, first adumbrated at £40m a year ago by the former charities minister Nick Hurd, was finally announced by the incumbent this week at the reduced level of £20m. The continued delays and the reduction in funds have never been explained, although the speculation is that the all-mighty Treasury has its reasons. As austerity continues and the Conservatives rule alone, this kind of outcome is surely a sign of the times. The sector has little option but to swallow its disappointment, tug its forelock, say "thank’ee sir" and make the best of it. It is destined for middle-sized charities under pressure and will be most welcome to the 150 lucky enough to be chosen.

Spinning the survey is one of the dark arts of modern communications, and the Charity Commission has evinced an impressive example of this in the publicity about its new report Trust and Confidence in the Charity Commission: my colleague Sam Burne James blogs about this elsewhere. (The report itself is full of illuminating detail and worth a read.) One result the commission has chosen to emphasise is the level of support among the public for charging charities for regulation as a way of compensating for deep cuts in funding from the government: two-thirds of charities, but only a quarter of the public, believe charity regulation should be funded entirely through general taxation, while more than two-thirds of the public think regulation should be partly or fully funded by a charge, compared with less than a quarter (23 per cent) of charities.

This is more or less what one would expect: turkeys, after all, tend not to vote for Christmas. But the franchise does not extend to turkeys, and an air of inevitability is beginning to hang about charging – see remarks above about austerity and a Tory-only government. William Shawcross, chair of the commission, says in his comments on the survey that he is going to continue discussions about the subject, and the sector had better believe it.

The reaction from the representative bodies has, of course, been negative. One point being made is that it is not right for part of donations made to good causes to be used to pay for a service previously provided out of general taxation. On the other hand, no one has asked donors if they would prefer regulation to be funded partly out of what they give rather than from general taxation. Donation, after all, is voluntary, whereas taxation is not.  Either way, the writing is well and truly on the wall, and it would be surprising if, in five years’ time, there was not some sort of sliding scale for charities to contribute to the cost of their regulation.

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