Charities face 'Eton-sized problem', journalist claims

Nicholas Hellen of The Sunday Times tells a fringe event at the Tory conference that the sector will face pushing and probing for years to come about which organisations deserve charitable status

Nicholas Hellen speaks at the event
Nicholas Hellen speaks at the event

The charity sector faces an "Eton-sized problem" that will lead to "pushing and probing" from the public and journalists for many years to come, a prominent Sunday Times journalist has said.

Nicholas Hellen, the social affairs editor at the newspaper, told a fringe event hosted by the think tank Common Vision UK at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham yesterday that charities faced a predicament similar to that of Eton, which for the past decade has had its charitable status repeatedly questioned by critics.

Hellen said the debate about Eton and other public schools was relevant to the charity sector because it showed how a sector ended up "contorting" itself in order not lose its charitable status or other public benefits.

Public schools, for example, had given increasing concessions year after year, such as sharing their playing fields or teaching facilities, he said.

"If you think that’s nothing to do with your charity, I’ll tell you why I think it is," he said. "Once people start asking questions about that very powerful word ‘charity’, it will quickly unravel and come in waves. People will keep on pushing and probing."

He said there would be questions about why medical research charities received significant funding from the public purse, when this benefited some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and why it was thought necessary to have military charities, when the UK had a military covenant that set out the government’s obligations to the armed forces.

"Why is all this needed?" he said. "We don’t use charities to pay for the roads, do we?"

Hellen also referred to senior executive pay in charities, saying that although he did not personally see anything wrong with those running big operations receiving six-figure salaries, "the problem is when you attach the word ‘charity’."

He said: "As long as you have that word, for most people it means voluntary, pro bono, de nada, gratis.

"And it doesn’t help to say we’re efficient, we’re doing a brilliant job, we’re helping lots of people."

Hellen concluded that he did not know what the solution was, but said it was possible that the term "charity" might eventually have to be reserved for entirely voluntary activities "where nobody is in it for anything".

The event, which was called "The Policy Factor! The Future of Charities", also heard from a series of charity chief executives, including Peter Holbrook of Social Enterprise UK, Kathy Evans of Children England and Caroline Diehl of the Media Trust.

Holbrook said the Conservative Party had taken a "hostile approach" towards the voluntary sector for the past five years and this should change because charities were the foundation, not the antithesis, of the party’s values.

Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy, partnerships and communications at the Lloyds Bank Foundation, referred from the audience to the sector’s relationship with the Conservatives, saying the sector should not let itself be the "plaything" of any party.

The fundraising scandals of last year received a brief mention from Children England’s Evans, who said she was concerned that the sector had become blasé about the public’s generosity. "How did any charity end up treating donations as a sales stream?" she said. "How did any charities end up using marketing techniques that are used in the commercial sales sector, in telesales and mass-marketing?"

She said it was not good enough for the sector to wait for the Fundraising Regulator to tell it how to fundraise: "We have to do our own examinations as to whether we’re paying enough respect."

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