Peter Stanford: Trustees who fail to tackle fraud let the charity down

Let's get tough on fraud and put it on the trustee agenda, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Many odd items have been included on the agendas of trustee meetings I have attended, but I can't ever recall 'fraud' being one of them.

That might explain why, out of the £150m that the National Fraud Authority estimates fraud to have cost UK charities in 2012, only £30m - a fifth - was reported. Many trustees presumably never even knew it had happened, while others swept it under the carpet - often for what seemed like the best of reasons.

In the past, estimates of the level of fraud in the third sector have been as high as £1.3bn, but the new figure is based on more accurate research, the NFA says. I suppose such a big drop in the estimate is cause for rejoicing. But we all know how hard it is to raise £10 or £100 or £1,000, so writing off amounts ending in many noughts still makes me shudder with shame.

Most charities have faced this issue. I was talking recently to a chief executive whose charity had been targeted by a well-organised gang that stole many thousands through a corrupt insider and a chain of false invoices from ghost companies controlled by the gang.

The matter was reported to the police, whose response was very poor. Because the charity had headquarters in London, it was told its loss was peanuts compared with the sums at the heart of ongoing investigations involving City companies that were taking up all the officers' time. And the chief executive was particularly disheartened to see, in the absence of any serious police commitment to clamping down on the people concerned, that at least one had been able to register himself as a trustee of a new charity with the blessing of the Charity Commission. Fraud should be taken more seriously at the official level.

But what about trustees? How seriously do we take it when it is brought to our attention? I can think of two incidents that I have had to deal with over the years. The first was a hapless young employee who got himself into a spiral of debt and helped himself to money out of the petty cash. When the reasons behind his fraud became apparent, I backed the chief executive when a repayment plan was agreed and the man kept his job. It worked: he paid us back, carried on doing a good job and a few years later moved on and continued to thrive. Is that the sort of fraud that charities are not reporting?

More serious was a computer whizz - how old does that make me sound? - who somehow managed to corrupt the charity's payment systems. He creamed off amounts small enough to go unnoticed for a while, but eventually he was detected by eagle-eyed auditors. The fraud was premeditated, prolonged and pernicious. The police were called and he was prosecuted. Our insurers paid up. Indeed, one of the factors that encouraged us to call in the police - who acted promptly and decisively in this case, I should add - was the insistence of insurers. Would we have wavered otherwise?

I hope not, but it does make you feel like a fool. Here we are, trying to run our charity in an efficient, professional way, bringing in the best disciplines of the commercial sector, and we get targeted and caught out by a fraudster. You worry that, if the news gets out, it might deter existing and future donors: "Don't donate to them; they allowed a fraudster to con them out of the cash we gave them! Hopeless amateurs!"

I've been through all those arguments, and could see their attraction at the time. The first effective counter-argument, should this end up being discussed at your trustee meeting, is that fraudsters con even the biggest and most professional of businesses. There should be no stigma.

The second is that we mustn't get in a muddle about our charitable instincts. If you are a charity fighting, for example, to alleviate the worst aspects of poverty and deprivation, there is a temptation to think that reporting internal thefts to the police is a betrayal of those people you should be helping. That is false logic: crime is crime, and a line has been crossed. How many more criminals will see you as a soft touch if you let it go? How many donors will you alienate if it comes out? How many worthy, honest applicants for help will you have to turn away because your funds have been depleted by cheats?

Am I hard-hearted? Probably. Am I learning from my own mistakes? I hope so. Let's get tough on fraud: put it on that trustee agenda.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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