Editorial: Putting stakeholders first is the real issue in the ombudsman debate

The perennial issue of whether there should be a charity ombudsman has been raised again by Jodi Berg, the Independent Complaints Reviewer for the Charity Commission.

Berg is concerned that many charities do not have adequate complaints procedures and that volunteers, donors, service users and members of the public often don't have anywhere to go if their complaints fall on deaf ears at the charity concerned. An ombudsman would be a single point of contact for complaints of any nature about charities. Berg would prefer to see a self-regulatory scheme, but doesn't think the idea would get the necessary backing from charities.

Her observation is timely. The Fundraising Standards Board - a self-regulatory scheme of the type she likes - has had a testing year. It received 8,343 complaints in its first year, but it is not popular among fundraisers. Donors are becoming familiar with the FRSB, but for other charity stakeholders the situation is more confusing. They often assume that the Charity Commission or the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator will be able to help them. In reality, the Advertising Standards Authority, the FRSB, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, trading standards officers, local authorities, MPs, the local government ombudsman, the parliamentary ombudsman and the police, among others, each have a role.

Most supporters don't know which organisation to approach or when. This is not helped by the fact that the various bodies are often unaware of their respective roles, so supporters can end up being passed from helpline to helpline, resulting in a hefty phone bill but no guarantee of a resolution.

A charity ombudsman is not a magic bullet. There are numerous drawbacks: the cost, the setting up of yet another stall in a crowded market, potential limits to charity independence and the risk of over-regulating charities.

But the suggestion raises an important issue: how best to engage with stakeholders. Most of the arguments against an ombudsman are charity-centred and relate to how difficult it would make life for charities. The argument in favour is client-centred: it is about helping stakeholders to find information and engage with the sector. Charities are learning to value the latter approach. The Charities Aid Foundation, for example, is completely restructuring to offer better customer service.

But is it possible to come up with a client-centred solution for the whole sector that doesn't have the drawbacks of an ombudsman? Having a single, well-informed point of contact would make life easier for donors and service users. The Charity Commission is making some headway: it aims to refer complainants and has launched a guide to educate MPs about how to handle complaints (Third Sector Online, 8 July). But it would find it impossible to fulfil the role comprehensively given its tight budget. Perhaps one of the umbrella bodies could take on the role.

Whatever the solution, it would work only with cross-sector backing and sufficient funding to launch a sizeable awareness-raising campaign and sustain a well-briefed helpdesk - a tough ask. In the meantime, the only answer is something the Charity Commission, Jodi Berg and the FRSB have all called for: better complaints-handling facilities at individual charitie.

Emma Maier, deputy editor, Third Sector

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