Charities 'must not go out of their way to divide people', commission chair warns

Baroness Stowell was making one of her last speeches before stepping down from the Charity Commission later this month

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

Charities can “shake things up”, but they must not “go out of their way to divide people”, according to the outgoing chair of the Charity Commission. 

Speaking at a virtual event held by the think tank The Social Market Foundation earlier today, Baroness Stowell used what was likely to be one of her last speeches in post to tell charities what they need to do to remain at the forefront of national life.

She warned that they could not afford to be “captured by those who want to advance or defend a view of the world that excludes others”. 

She said: “Charities can challenge things, charities can shake things up, they can even change the world, but they can’t, and they shouldn’t, go out of their way to divide people.

“Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends, but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight,” she said. 

“Many seek out charities as an antidote to politics and division, not as another front on which to wage a war against political enemies, and they have the right to be respected.

“Telling these people that they’ll get a fair hearing if they object to the politicisation of their favourite charities or if they take a different view is not in itself a political act; it is the role of a responsible regulator.”

Stowell was asked after her speech whether she could give specific examples of those charities that had campaigned “disrespectfully”, and if a focus on subjective concepts like “behaviour” was just widening social divisions by facilitating culture wars.

Stowell said this was not the case. “What’s important is to remember that the status of charity is something that brings with it a set of responsibilities that are not always easy to define,” she said. 

“A charity is a custodian of something which goes beyond just the legal limits of the law.”

Stowell said charities were at risk of damaging their own brand, and that of the sector.

In response to a question from Third Sector about what she thought of those in the sector who thought her comments about the National Trust in October last year were politically motivated, Stowell denied she had ever done such a thing while in post. 

She said people did not want to “be in receipt of propaganda” from causes that were outside of a charity’s objects.

Asked how charities could campaign on issues like race and trans rights in a way that was in line with their objectives but was not polarising, Stowell said: “You have to be respectful of a wide range of views.”

She went on to say that anyone who thought racism was a good thing was not worthy of respect.

Stowell was also asked whether she would like to see the register include organisations such as Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion.

“I wouldn’t want to take a view on that, I’m not the technical expert that would take a view on these things.”

But Stowell said if an organisation existed only to campaign politically, that would disqualify it from becoming a charity. 

The regulator is expected to appoint an interim chair when Stowell steps down later this month. 

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