Interview: Gwythian Prins

The public is concerned about high salaries and thinks charities should 'stick to their knitting', one of the Charity Commission's new board members tells Stephen Cook

Gwythian Prins
Gwythian Prins

Gwythian Prins tells how he was approached recently by a neighbour who is a trustee for a small charity for the terminally ill in the Cotswolds. She wanted to talk to him about the pay of chief executives in big charities after reading about it in the papers.

"People are horrified by these mega-salaries," Prins says. "It really is a problem. She bearded me over coffee in the village shop and wanted to know how it could happen. She said the only paid post in her charity was the book-keeper - everyone else gave their time freely and it never entered their heads to do it any other way.

"I explained to her the sharply pyramidal nature of the charity world, where the very large charities inhabit the top of the spike. But she wasn't reassured, because she believes that large, high-profile charities have a responsibility for more than just themselves. And she said that from now on she would look very closely at every charity to which she gives money, to find out what the top management arrangements are."

Prins, a research professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a member of the Strategy Advisory Board of the Chief of the Defence Staff, is one of the new Charity Commission board members appointed in July. He is sympathetic to his neighbour's point of view and thinks the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' proposal to draw up guidelines for trustees on setting executive salaries is an excellent idea.

"Trustees are very much in the frame," he says. "That's the big message that comes across here. They should be more active in their oversight of the executive, advising and guiding - and if they want to justify high salaries, they must get out there and explain. Being a trustee is a serious business.

"Running a charity is not an industry, and if you go into it thinking you will be paid as you would in a commercial company then you should have a good look in the mirror. It's a world that's quite different."

But he thinks this world has become more complicated because of public service delivery. "When I give voluntarily, there's a choice," he says. "If it's my tax money, then I have no choice - that is both a practical and a moral difference. There has been a sharp growth in the number of charities that rely on taypayers' money through government grants, often to deliver services for national or local government.

"But as our chair, William Shawcross, said in a recent speech, charities should not be thought of as adjunct delivery agents for the welfare state. Indeed, the essence of a charity is the antithesis of a state organisation. We are all on a journey as we as a society seek to define - and in the commission's case protect by effective regulation - what William Beveridge called the 'living tapestry' of charitable action, fit for the 21st century. This is where I think a conversation needs to be had."

Prins applied to join the board because he had been chair for six years of the Waterford School Trust and wanted to serve in a wider context. The trust provides bursaries for the Waterford-Kamhlaba School in Swaziland, where he taught 40 years ago; it was the first multi-racial school in southern Africa and educated the children of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer.

He discounts observations from some in the sector that the new board has insufficient experience of the charity world. Its members are there because of a personal commitment, he says, and are well able to understand the charitable activities of the country.

"It's a very vigorous board," he says. "Few of us know how it was before, but the commission is back to being what it should be - an intelligent and humane regulator. Done properly and effectively, regulation is the single best way to protect and comfort traditional charities. We have to deter the bad guys and thereby reinforce the good guys."

The commission has been through a stressful and confused period, including budget cuts, he says, but is now being rebalanced to make sure it is "on the front foot for front-line tasks". The board has set its priorities, including action against terrorist infiltration, fraud and those who exploit the privileges of being a charity or predate on vulnerable beneficiaries.

"We will also take a view about charities keeping their campaigning within their charitable objects and purposes," he says. "Problems arise when charities push the envelope, and some have recently been in the public eye because of this. If a charity campaigns about matters that appear to be outside its objects, then naturally we will look at it.

"The weather has changed on this front. The public expects charities to stick to their knitting, to use an old-fashioned phrase. There's huge affection for charitable activities involving the giving of time and money. I agree with my neighbour in the village coffee shop: this is something that has to be protected and cherished."

CV:

2013: Member, Chief of the Defence Staff strategy advisory panel; visiting professor in war studies, University of Buckingham

2002: Research professor, LSE and Columbia University, NY

1999: Security consultant, Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research

1997: Senior fellow, Office of the Secretary-General of Nato; senior fellow, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, Ministry of Defence

1976: Fellow, tutor and director of studies in history, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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