Regulator's focus on bad behaviour could lead to controlling environment, says Nick Perks

The trust secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust tells delegates at the Association of Charitable Foundations annual conference that a culture shift at the Charity Commission might affect charities' ability to take risks

Nick Perks
Nick Perks

The Charity Commission's new focus on stewardship and bad behaviour could be creating a controlling regulatory environment in contrast to the enabling environment the voluntary sector previously enjoyed, according to Nick Perks, trust secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Speaking on a panel at the annual conference of the Association of Charitable Foundations in London, Perks told delegates he was concerned that the recent culture shift at the commission, which he said was widely acknowledged, might have a knock-on effect on charities’ ability to take risks and to innovate – and on grant-makers’ willingness to fund them.

"If you want to be grant-makers that are going to take risks and are going to fund things that might fail, if you want to search for innovation, if you want to give grantees freedom, how does that fit in with the regulatory environment?" Perks asked. "And is there a point at which the cost of making sure that money is spent well outweighs the benefits?"

Paula Sussex, who joined the commission as chief executive in the summer, said last month that the regulator would be quicker to use its regulatory powers and less likely to allow charities the benefit of the doubt.

Citing another challenge he said foundations were facing, Perks said there was a risk that the desire to demonstrate the effects of projects they had funded could get in the way of grant-makers’ ability to think long-term.

He said that foundations did not have to "sell themselves" in this way. "If we really want long-term change, then the more we talk about what we achieved last year, the more difficult it might be to keep our eyes on that long-term vision."

Perks also spoke about the "existential anxiety" he said grant-makers often experienced – a worry that they were not as good as the people they funded, who were "changing the world".

He said there was a risk this could lead to them stepping out of their area of expertise and setting up their own charitable projects.

While these could nevertheless be effective operations, he said, foundations should be honest with themselves about their motivations before embarking on such projects.

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