Caron Bradshaw: Rules and regulations are no substitute for moral standards

You can't change hearts and minds simply by using rules - and sometimes they undermine judgement and accountability, says our columnist

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

There has been a lot of focus on fundraising regulation in recent months. I'm not a fundraiser, but I do know about regulation. Having been the head of ethics advisory at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, I know about codes and behaviour. My experience has taught me you don't change hearts and minds with rules – perversely, they can undermine judgement and accountability.

Like it or not, we operate in a market in which we encounter both the public and private sectors. We don't always play by the same rules. Sometimes we are unrealistically expected to occupy the moral high ground. At other times we expect to be let off when our behaviour falls short. We should be somewhere in between.

Charity is in a curious place: pressured to be professional, business-like and capable of efficient operation at scale, but frowned upon for actively competing or paying skilled staff. The media can be suspicious of our large and complex organisations or of charities that are vocal about the things that need to change to address the social ills we're set up to eradicate. We're driven by public good, but we operate in a society where the individualism and consumerism of the market is the dominant narrative. We are far from being in crisis, but we're struggling to articulate our identity and we are in danger of losing our way.

When I worked for ICAEW, long-serving accountants complained that while the length and complexity of the code of ethics increased year on year, the values and judgement of individuals entering the profession did not improve proportionately. Outcomes are not changed by lengthening codes or by better policing of them; they are shaped by how we think, act and approach difficult situations.

Codes of conduct, self-regulated or statutorily regulated, are rarely successful in shaping behaviour unless there is integrity among those the codes cover. Detailed do's and don'ts might feel helpful, but can have the unintended consequence of undermining judgement. The guiding principle should be "would I feel comfortable reading about this on the front page of the newspaper?" or "is this the right thing to do?", not "does the code permit or prohibit this?"

How do we strike the right ethical and moral tone while avoiding being put on an unrealistic and restricting pedestal? We must be able to raise sufficient funds in a difficult environment. As it stands, without the loss of income likely from a change to our fundraising regulation, we already face a £4.6bn funding gap by 2018.

We must fully understand the problem we're trying to fix, address the challenges involved and keep beneficiaries at the heart of the debate. We should not be trying primarily to minimise criticism, nor should we focus entirely on donor experience. Donors are not there to be treated as silent cash cows, but neither are we in this work for an easy life or to keep donors happy at all costs.

Sometimes our messages will be difficult and we will shine a light on the deeply unpalatable. This won't change, regardless of how tightly regulated we become. But if we're not careful we could end up with the worst of all worlds, and that will seriously let our beneficiaries down.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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