Efficiency has emerged as the watchword in the appointment of the new Charity Commission chief executive. With a background in CGI Public Sector, whose strapline is "driving efficiencies for the public sector", Paula Sussex has said she wants to play her part "by building the commission into a proactive, efficient regulator of charity".
That's all well and good, and the need for the commission to clean up a few acts is clear from recent criticisms by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. But it has already proved itself an effective regulator of a sector that has gone from strength to strength in recent decades, both financially and in terms of capacity. At a time when social need and the landscape of the sector are changing fast, the emphasis on efficiency models might be sending a few shivers down the sector's spine. We need a more inspirational call.
The whole thrust of recent sector policy has been to free up individuals and communities to take more power into their own hands when addressing local need. This is no mean challenge. Much research from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Third Sector Research Centre has shown that it is in communities with the least resources that the greatest needs lie. One way in which the sector can address this gap is by facilitating better-off communities and people to switch some of their resources towards the less well-off.
But it is equally important to build community skills, confidence and capacity where it does not exist. It appears from recent foundation reports and research (including work published by the Garfield Weston Foundation, which I co-authored) that levels of funding applications from some of the most deprived areas have been falling. One role of an effective regulator is to encourage the market to thrive, and the Charity Commission needs to play a part in supporting charitable growth in areas where it is under-developed, and among communities on the wrong side of the wealth divide. New, inexperienced community leaders must be encouraged to take on duties such as trusteeship, and build community entrepreneurialism and empowerment. The imposition of models of public or private sector efficiency on the sector (a call also made recently by New Philanthropy Capital in its RSA lecture) will only inhibit this process.
Some charities are becoming quasi-public agents of service delivery. These are accountable to local and national commissioners for their costs, output and productivity, and not to any potential sector bodies or standards. Let us hope that, in promoting its statutory duty of "the effective use of charitable resources", the commission prioritises support for community engagement in ways that open the doors to charitable privilege. Enabling access to public benefit where it is most needed is just as important as encouraging the third sector to model its activities on those of the other two sectors.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School