If the sector's secret comes out, we're really in trouble

The sector is littered with the broken pieces of good people crushed by their charity's malfeasance, believes Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

When I first joined the charity sector, as a fresh-faced fundraiser for Save the Children in 1991, I did something unthinkable in today's climate: I wrote a Dynasty-style soap opera about a fictional voluntary sector titan called Lush Charities Conglomerated, powerful enough to spurn the advances of the biggest companies and celebrities, and filled with devious, dangerous and downright sexy people, transparently based on caricatures of real colleagues.

Each week a new episode appeared in colleagues' in-trays, featuring romance, betrayal, a lovechild of disputed paternity and industrial espionage with Lush's rival charity, Smorg (Save Myopic Orphans of Restricted Growth). Remarkably, no one filed harassment complaints against me and it proved a huge hit.

One recurring plotline was the search by an undercover Smorg agent for The Secret, which was continually referred to as "the explosive truth that could rock Lush to the very fabric of its being". Sadly, we never did find out what The Secret was, although I was tempted to link it to a massive chemical spill at a charity fete.

Dirty secret

But in my 20-year odyssey through the sector since then, I've realised that the real charity world has its own dirty secret, one that the public rarely glimpses. It is that a significant minority of charities are run as personal fiefdoms of overbearing chief executives or chairs.

Happily, I have landed in a charity where good practice reigns, but I have come across some benighted ones too - enough to make me think that the sector is littered with the broken pieces of good people crushed by their charity's malfeasance.

Other sectors have their governance horror stories too, but the power given to trustees in charity law is substantial, and abuses can follow; and if there is a power vacuum on the board - and we have all known trustees with a scarily laissez-faire approach to their duties - it can be filled by a chief executive taking an unchecked hold on the organisation.

Weakness of sanctions

Whenever I read about whistle-blowers seeking help from the Charity Commission's well-meaning compliance unit, I often groan at the long timescales and the weakness of some of the sanctions deployed.

One day there might be a case of a misbehaving charity that captures the public appetite for stories of corporate malpractice or greed. When that time comes, it could tarnish the reputation of the majority of us who strive to do right for a good cause. Our secret will be out, and it may indeed rock our sector to the very fabric of its being. In time, it might lead to a clean-up, to more resources for the commission's compliance unit and less aversion to the strongest sanctions. Until then, things might need to get worse before they get better.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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