Opinion: The charity traffic light is stuck at green

Nick Cater

For light bedtime reading, I naturally turn first to the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, a tightly packed publication that ranges far wider than its title implies.

Alongside 'From Elections to Democracy in Central Europe: Public Participation and the Role of Civil Society' and 'Reinventing Liberia: Civil Society, Governance, and a Nation's Post-War Recovery', the latest issue offers a near 5,000-word romp through the Charity Commission's past, present and future.

It's better than it sounds. The author is Richard Fries, chief charity commissioner to 1999 and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' Centre for Civil Society. Amid much else, one fact jumped out: nothing can stop a charity getting registered, providing it clears all the usual public benefit and charitable purpose hurdles.

My ignorance on many subjects is total, but in this case I had always half known that the commission is not empowered "to make any judgement, on its own behalf or for the government, as to whether there is a need for a new body to pursue its intended purpose".

Yet it was a shock to see this presented as the "right" of any and all charities, presumably beyond the totally incompetent, criminal or pointless, to gain registration's tax and legal benefits, whatever the questions about existing capacity, added value or merely whether the idea has any hope of survival.

Must every appeal in the name of a dead child go through, regardless of the duplication, waste or confusion? Is each fresh little aid agency that pops up after a crisis to be welcomed, when there are already far too many disaster charities? Should all religious sects have their 15 minutes of tax relief?

This is bonkers. The regulator's objectives include increasing trust and confidence in charities, promoting effective use of resources and enhancing accountability, none of which is possible if the registration traffic light is stuck at green for all that is underfunded, undermanaged or inefficient.

These are not companies using their owners' cash to profit the few, but charities acquiring the public's money for the benefit of many. Is it too late to amend the Charities Bill to raise standards through greater regulation? We could head off the hopeless, foster mergers and bring in annual MOT tests.

Existing charities should welcome this. After all, what's the point of a club anyone can join?

- Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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