Lesley-Anne Alexander: It's time to shed the hair shirt

Lesley-Anne Alexander, who is leaving the RNIB after 12 years in charge, tells Stephen Cook why the sector should not let itself be bullied

Lesley-Anne Alexander
Lesley-Anne Alexander

Judo allows you to take on much bigger opponents by catching them off balance - and Lesley-Anne Alexander, who gained a black belt at 16 and was once a member of the Great Britain team, does not hesitate to use this principle when talking about what is going on in the charity world at the moment.

While the sector mostly remains on the back foot after the furore about fundraising, Alexander thinks the mea culpa act has been taken too far and responds with no holds barred to recent criticism from big beasts including the government, the Charity Commission, the new Fundraising Regulator and the media.

In September, Alexander is leaving the RNIB, where she has been chief executive for 12 years, and her views might have become franker than usual because of that. But she is widely admired in the sector for her successful reshaping of her charity, her experience as chair of the leadership body Acevo for six years and her generally radical and rumbustious style.

My definition of madness is working out that regulation didn't work, then layering on more regulation

"In fundraising, I don't think we as a sector have conducted ourselves well at all," she says. "Of course, there are failings - there are failings in any sector. But we have donned such a vicious hair shirt. I said the other day we've not only got a hair shirt on, we've got hair knickers on as well.

"We've allowed ourselves to be bullied, and if you speak up against further regulation of the sector you immediately get battered, almost like a deficit denier - 'you're a fundraising bad practice denier; how dare you?' I accept there has been bad practice, but let's get the regulation that we've got right. What we want is better regulation, not more regulation."

Alexander doesn't see the need for the Fundraising Regulator and has publicly refused its request, which was made to the 50 largest fundraising charities, for the RNIB to stump up £15,000 towards its start-up costs. She thinks this is wrong in principle, and the latest intelligence she has is that about eight others are undecided or have yet to pay.

She says the sector is already "hideously over-regulated" by a multiplicity of bodies, all requiring slightly different things. "Einstein's definition of madness was doing more of the same thing and expecting a different outcome," she says. "Mine is working out that regulation didn't work, then layering on more regulation.

"Abuse of data is not specific to fundraising, so why do we need a Fundraising Regulator? Why do we need a Fundraising Preference Service when there are good systems already, such as the Telephone Preference Service, the Mailing Preference Service and the Advertising Standards Authority? If they don't work in the fundraising context, we should make them work rather than just put something else in place."

Not impressed by commission

Alexander argues that fundraising-specific regulation could be done by the Charity Commission within its £20m funding, given that the budget for the Fundraising Regulator is in the region of £2m rather than the £10m bracket. And she's not impressed by the argument that the commission is short of money. "I know a lot of charities that could make a significant difference with £20m," she says. Neither is she impressed by its recent get-tough policies.

She does not think the criticism the commission received for past failings - which got less publicity than the failures of Kids Company, she adds - justifies its current approach: "When a bully gets bullied, should they just go and bully someone else? Does the commission think it's their job to beat charities because they got pasted by the Public Accounts Committee, or whoever?

"That isn't positive regulation, which to me means being the place to go for advice on how to get it right and bringing some structure to a cluttered sector. Charities need help, support and encouragement to be as good as they can possibly be."

In the context of the plan by William Shawcross, the chair of the commission, to ask charities to contribute towards the cost of the regulator, Alexander refers to a remark made last year by the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who said charities campaigning without telling their donors was "like stealing from the poor box".

She says: "Nobody seems to relate that to the Shawcross tax, asking us to pay for being regulated. I mean, it's just fanciful. I haven't got enough money, so I'm going to have some of yours instead. I didn't bring lunch so I'm going to eat yours today. Is that not robbing the poor box?

"Will the public really understand that if they give the RNIB a pound, a bit of it is going to the Fundraising Regulator, a bit to the Charity Commission, a bit to subsidise underfunded government contracts and, oh yes, finally a bit of it is going to fund our talking books service because blind people don't get what they need from taxpayer-funded local libraries?

"It feels as if there's a real lack of understanding about the contributions the third sector makes to society - the fact that we bring equality to situations. If we weren't here, there would be one hell of a bill for government to pick up."

Alexander thinks this is the result of a political environment that is much more hostile to charities than when Nick Hurd - her constituency MP - was charities minister. She didn't necessarily agree with his policies, she says, but felt that there was more understanding of the sector.

"I think the charity sector is being hammered by the government now," she says. "The gagging clauses, the imposition of regulation with threats that if we don't all willingly sign up then ministers won't engage with us, and the notion that small is good. In my cynical moments, I believe they think small is good because small is controllable.

"It's almost as if we live in a parallel universe, with Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin saying he can't abide the Tescoisation of the charity world, then the charities minister, Rob Wilson, saying things like his legacy to the sector is going to be masterclasses at the knee of private sector businesses. And you think, hello, which bit of the private sector should I worship at - would that be BHS, Woolworths, Tesco or the journalists?

"No one sector has got a monopoly on getting it right, and the third sector has to have more confidence in its own abilities. We have to blend the very best and operate in that sweet spot in the middle where the best of all three come together."

So has Alexander taken her criticisms to Shawcross, Wilson and Lord Grade, interim chair of the Fundraising Regulator, or his chief executive Stephen Dunmore? After she made a fuss, she says, Dunmore came to a meeting that was initially "a bit tetchy". Otherwise, her overtures, public and private, have met a stone wall, she says.

And what about the media? The RNIB has not been attacked, but Alexander is clearly on her guard. Sector leaders have been criticised for earning more than the Prime Minister, as she does - although she points out that no one questions chief executive salaries at private companies such as Serco or G4S, against which the RNIB wins contracts.

michael gradeLord Grade: no answer

"I did go to a dinner with Grade," she says. "He was late because he had a business engagement that he deemed more important than meeting 15 charity leaders sitting round waiting for him. When I asked him what success would look like, he couldn't answer. I came away really, really worried. Trying to engage with people - you can only try for so long, then you lose the will to live. And that's not the way I do business."

Daily Mail fears

She also worries what the Daily Mail might do with the story that her charity spent £1m developing a TV remote control that speaks the channel, so partially sighted people can find the one they want more easily. "'RNIB wastes millions on microchip' - would that be he headline?" she asks.

"In fact, watching TV is one of the main things blind and partially sighted people have asked us for help with. There is such nonsense in the tabloids about our sector, and I think it comes back to the mismatch between the public perception of charities and what charities do. And the more professional charities get, the more we achieve, the more we take ourselves away from the public's fluffy idea of us.

"I think that has disturbed the media - they are the public, in a way. So charities need to be better about talking about why they are doing what they do - but of course, if we tell the story too much, we're accused of spending all our money on PR and marketing."

After she leaves the RNIB, Alexander plans to concentrate on her non-executive jobs and embark on her bucket list, starting with learning to ride a moped. "The men in my life are trying to prevent me, so I'm going to do it on my own," she says. "There's so much more I want to do, and I'm as fit as I've ever been."

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