2017: The year the charity sector bounced back...

...but also found itself towards the bottom of the political agenda

William Shawcross and Theresa May
William Shawcross and Theresa May

For all the many horrors of the past year, the ability of the UK’s voluntary sector to respond to those in desperate need at home and abroad was something that regularly shone through the gloom.

Aside from the millions of pounds collected by charities to help those affected by incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing, the practical help offered by charity sector organisations large and small was repeatedly highlighted by those close to the incidents, rightly resulting in considerable credit for those involved.

But despite the sector’s efforts, the past 12 months have been far from easy for many in the voluntary sector. Here are some of the notable stories from 2017:

The PM does know charities exist

The year appeared to begin promisingly from a voluntary sector perspective, with Theresa May, the Prime Minister, giving a speech at the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting setting out her vision of a "shared society" in which the government would take a more hands-on approach to helping marginalised people.

But two days later May was criticising a major charity by telling the House of Commons that claims made by the British Red Cross that the situation in the NHS was a "humanitarian crisis" were "irresponsible and overblown". 

The ministerial merry-go-round

Later in the year, May’s surprise call of a general election in June had ramifications for the voluntary sector, not least because Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, unexpectedly lost his Reading East seat to his Labour opponent, bringing an end to three years as charities minister.

He was succeeded in the Conservative minority government by Tracey Crouch (right), who was given the charities brief in addition to her existing responsibilities as sports minister.

Crouch, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford, stayed relatively quiet until November, when she said she planned to draw up a new voluntary sector strategy that would "reaffirm the value that government places on civil society".

A consultation on the strategy, which will not include any new spending on the sector, is expected in January.

It also emerged in November that Wilson had been interviewed as a possible successor to William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, when his term expires at the end of January. The new chair is expected to be appointed early in the new year.

The Shawcross farewell tour

Shawcross spent much of his final year pushing the case for the Charity Commission charging charities for its services in a bid to deal with significant cuts to its budget in recent years, with a long-awaited consultation on the subject expected in the new year.

This was despite a report in March from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, which said the group had "grave concerns" about the idea of the regulator charging charities for its services.

The committee, led by the Labour peer Baroness Pitkeathley, also urged the government to make charity mergers easier, extend social value legislation and hold a consultation on statutory time off for people to volunteer as trustees.

The government’s response to the report, published just before Christmas, welcomed many of the ideas but failed to promise much substantive action.

There was some good news for Shawcross and the commission in November when the National Audit Office said the regulator had made significant improvements. It had been heavily criticised by the spending watchdog in 2013.

Sorry, we’ve no time to reform the lobbying act

The government’s decision in September not to implement Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’ reforms to the lobbying act caused anger in the sector. 

Government sources said the decision was taken because there was not enough space in the legislative programme to pass the necessary law.

Hodgson said the rejection of his recommendations risked greater confusion around charity campaigning at the next general election.

Elsewhere on the political front, the Charity Finance Group stoked up the Brexit debate by suggesting in the summer that a clean Brexit without membership of the single market would "have the most potential for allowing the UK charity sector to thrive". The National Council for Voluntary Organisations described the report as "unhelpful". 

A better year for the fundraisers

The Information Commissioner’s Office concluded its investigation into data sharing, wealth screening and data matching and issued fines totalling £138,000 to 11 charities.

In April, the regulator said that it had concluded that the 11 charities had breached the Data Protection Act: many had "secretly screened" millions of donors to assess their wealth and ability to donate, some had pieced together personal information that donors had not supplied, and some had traded personal details with other charities.

The charities that faced regulatory action included Guide Dogs, which was fined £15,000, the NSPCC, which was fined £12,000, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was given the largest single fine out of the 11 charities of £18,000.

It came after the ICO issued fines of £43,000 to the RSPCA and the British Heart Foundation in December 2016 as part of the same investigation.

The Fundraising Preference Service went live in July, enabling people to block post, phone, email or text communications from named charities. The Fundraising Regulator, which runs the service, marked its first anniversary on the same day of the FPS launch.

The next month, the regulator attempted to increase the proportion of the largest fundraising charities that pay the voluntary fundraising levy by publishing a list showing the 162 charities that it said had not yet made a payment.

The list included 1,570 organisations in England and Wales that had been asked to pay up to £15,000 a year to cover the regulator’s costs, with the majority listed as having paid their share of the levy. But it did not include the names of 95 organisations that the regulator said it was in negotiations with over the levy.

In October, the regulator produced the annual complaints report, which showed that 900 of the largest-fundraising charities received more than 42,000 complaints about their fundraising activities in 2016.

This appeared to be a rise in the number of complaints per charity compared with 2015, but the regulator said the figures were not comparable because the charities involved over the two years were not necessarily the same.

It subsequently announced that it would be suspending publication of a full complaints report until 2020 because it wanted to review the content and purpose of the report in order to try to collect more useful data from participating charities.

Camila bites back

Two years after its dramatic collapse, the Kids Company story continued to rumble on.

In April, it emerged that the Insolvency Service was pursuing disqualification proceedings against the former charity’s trustees and Camila Batmanghelidjh (left), its founder and former chief executive. If the proceedings, which trustees said they would robustly defend themselves against, were successful, the individuals would be prevented from holding further roles as company directors for a certain period.

In October, Batmanghelidjh published her book Kids – Child Protection in Britain: The Truth, and told Third Sector in an exclusive interview that what happened to Kids Company could happen to any charity

And if that wasn’t enough, the Donmar Warehouse staged its musical based on the transcript of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s hearing into the closure of the charity. The production, though eminently watchable, added little to the debate, according to Third Sector’s review in July

The big job moves of the year

Third Sector revealed in May that Helen Stephenson was set to be named as chief executive of the Charity Commission.

Stephenson, a former director of the Office for Civil Society, took over from Paula Sussex, who decided not to extend her three-year contract with the regulator.

Other notable appointments in 2017 included Amanda Bringans (right), director of fundraising at the British Heart Foundation, being named chair of the Institute of Fundraising, Tom Wright, who swapped the chief executive’s chair at Age UK for the same position at Guide Dogs, and Jane Ide, who was promoted to chief executive at Navca, taking over from Neil Cleeveley, who had been with the local infrastructure body for 14 years.

Notable departures announced during the year included Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, who is due to stand down at the end of the year after more than 25 years in the role, Jeremy Cooper, who left the RSPCA after just over a year as chief executive, and Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, who said he would stand down in spring 2018 after 10 years in the role.

The senior executive pay debate rumbles on

Senior pay among charities continued to be of interest to the public and the national media, and research by Third Sector, published in March, showed that the average salary of the top earner at the 100 highest-paying charities had increased from £212,500 in 2015 to £255,000 this year.

The Wellcome Trust awarded the highest salary, paying one of its investment team more than £3m after the strong performance of its investment portfolio.

Meanwhile, the disability charity Scope announced a major change in July when it revealed plans to carry out a radical restructure that would result in it shedding two-thirds of its staff so it could focus on its core mission of achieving an equal society for disabled people.

Third Sector revealed in December that, as part of the plans, the charity had agreed to sell all of its care homes to the private sector company Salutem, with about 2,000 staff expected to transfer over. 

Finally, bravo to the food redistribution charity FareShare, named Charity of the Year at the Third Sector Awards, and the financial services firm Investec, which won Business of the Year at the Third Sector Business Charity Awards.

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