Claire Dove: 'I was quite blunt and vocal'

Social entrepreneur Claire Dove's three-year term on the board of the Charity Commission has now ended. She tells Stephen Cook of her concerns and hopes for the regulator

Claire Dove
Claire Dove

When a reception was held at the House of Commons three years ago to welcome six new members of the Charity Commission board, one person stood out in the predominantly white, middle-aged, male, metropolitan gathering: Claire Dove, a black female social entrepreneur from Liverpool who was one of the new appointees.

She wasn't the only woman or the only non-white person to be appointed: the others included Eryl Besse, a Welsh lawyer who has taken to the role and recently been appointed deputy chair of the board, and Nazo Moosa, who resigned after 16 months because of the pressure of her job in an investment firm.

But Dove was the only person with long and recent experience of working in the non-profit sector: she has been in the field for 40 years and is chief executive of Blackburne House, the Liverpool social enterprise for training and empowering women, which she set up. The fact that only one person with such direct sector experience was appointed has attracted continuing controversy.

Three years on, Dove once again stands out: of the five people whose first terms on the board ended recently, she is the only one whose tenure has not been extended.

Gwythian Prins, the academic who recently attracted criticism for publishing an article opposing UK membership of the EU, will stay until May next year, and the lawyer Orlando Fraser QC until the following December. Besse and another lawyer, Tony Leifer, will stay for two and a half years.

The details of the decision not to reappoint Dove are not entirely clear. When announcing the changes, the commission thanked Dove for her contribution and said she "has not sought reappointment due to other work commitments". It has since added that her departure was by mutual agreement. But others who know what happened are clear that, despite her undoubted sector experience, she was not offered reappointment. The announcement came as a surprise, they say, but was not challenged.

Dove says the commission wanted more of her time than she could give, and that her commitments with Blackburne House and as chair of Social Enterprise UK sometimes made it difficult for her to attend meetings, especially at short notice, or to chair committees. She was "quite blunt and vocal" in some of her contributions, she says, but thinks that her input was valuable and prompted some good debates.

Tenure appraised

But rather than dwelling on her departure, she prefers to talk about what happened during her tenure, what she thinks is missing in the commission's agenda and what she hopes the future will hold. Her key themes are that the board needs more members with operational experience in charities, should listen more to its own staff and to smaller charities, especially in the regions, should ease up slightly on its recent get-tough policy and should concentrate more on regulation that empowers the sector.

"This is a time when charities are needed more than ever," she says. "Our political leaders are changing the country in a major way, and the sector needs resources to discharge its duties. Theresa May has said her government will be there for everybody, and if that's the case it will need the social glue provided by the charity sector."

Dove says that when she was interviewed for the post by a panel including the commission chair, William Shawcross, she was struck by the language used about the commission being the "policeman" of the sector; all the same, she was pleased to be appointed because she felt there was a need for someone with her particular skills and background. "I felt my role at the commission was to put forward the impact that would be felt by charities if we were proposing to do something, or the government wanted something concerning charities to be put in place. The board needs legal people - there are excellent people round the table - but there also needs to be a good balance and you've got to have people who are absolutely embedded in the charity community.

"I could see what would and wouldn't work operationally, and we had some great discussions about things such as whether it was acceptable for a tenant director in a housing association to be paid in order to support their ability to come to meetings."

In the early days of her tenure, she says, the board concentrated on addressing the concerns of the Public Accounts Committee, which had criticised the commission for failing to act on the Cup Trust, a tax-avoidance vehicle set up as a charity, and for the low number of inquiries it was conducting. "I think the chief executive, Paula Sussex, and the team are incredibly hard-working, have made some great calls and have put procedures and policies in place that will make the commission more robust as we go forward," she says. "They have done some great stuff in speeding up processes and getting cases off the books.

"But that is only one side of the commission and, as time has gone on, new people have been appointed and things have become more efficient and effective, the board needs to have the confidence to leave the team to do that work and look at the strategy and the next things that need to be done."

Dove says one of the subjects discussed on the board was the commission's independence, in the context that some people in the sector were accusing it of being the voice of government; another was CC9 - the commission's guidance on political campaigning, the tightening of which she says is still on the commission's agenda.

"We have talked long and hard about this and I feel I've made it pretty clear how I feel," she says. "We have to walk a fine line because the sector has to be confident in the commission and what we do. Charities are needed more than ever because of the inequalities in our communities, some of which have lost all heart and are suffering from generational unemployment and poverty.

"Regulation should enable them to tackle those things, to make their voices heard and be able to lobby on behalf of those communities - that to me is the fundamental right of a charity. I'm not talking about charities endorsing party politics - I'm talking about them endorsing political issues that affect their communities. We've got to be able to allow charities to have that voice, and if I was a minister or a local MP I would want to hear that voice because that obviously helps government to formulate good policies to help our communities."

Since the criticism by the Public Accounts Committee, which was followed by more from the Public Administration Select Committee, regulation by the commission has been notably more robust and charities have been told they will no longer get the benefit of the doubt.

Dove agrees that it is right for the commission to be tough with errant charities when it is justified, but adds that coming down hard is not always the most productive approach and boards "sometimes need to take a step back".

Conflicting pressures

She thinks Shawcross has tried hard to balance the conflicting pressures on the commission from government and the sector, and she refutes the charge that has sometimes been made that the commission has been biased against Islamic charities: "Some things that came across the table were very serious, and the commission has acted in the best interests of charities and the general public."

She was less comfortable, however, about issues such as the composition of the board and says she will watch the future strategic direction of the commission with interest: "I was quite blunt on occasions. I have been a vocal board member and possibly a thorn in their side. I think I earned respect and formed some great relationships.

'Opportunities missed'

"But I don't think my skillset, as an outward-facing person who has that wide experience in the sector, was used in the best way, and opportunities were missed to have more dialogue with the wider sector.

"You will always get differing opinions, but on issues such as major changes to charity law you do need to have an impact assessment and listen to the sector, to people with expertise on the board and to the staff team."

She says the current recruitment process is an opportunity for the commission to make its board more representative by appointing several people from the sector, and a commission source says at least one person with comparable experience of working in the sector is being sought: three new board members are expected to be announced in September. She thinks this might not be easy because the public appointment process tends to draw from "a small swimming pool" where people like her are not often found, and because boards often have a tendency to recruit people in their own image.

"For me the proof is going to be in who they appoint in my place," she concludes. "If it's a white male Londoner, I'll be very upset. They need people who are not only good board members, but can also reflect back the impact the commission has on the sector."

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