Charities often have a defensive mindset when criticised, William Shawcross says

Chair of the Charity Commission tells debate that the public does have good general understanding of the way that charities operate

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

Public misunderstanding of how charities work should not be "reeled out as a convenient defence" when the sector is criticised, according to the chair of the Charity Commission.

William Shawcross was speaking yesterday at an event in London organised by the law firm Russell-Cooke to debate the motion "This house believes that the public does not understand the role of charities and their regulator".

While agreeing that the public's understanding of charities and the commission was in some ways limited, Shawcross said he did not support the motion because he said the general public did understand some fundamental principles of how charities operate.

"The public has a pretty good instinctive understanding of the things that really do matter in charities," he said.

Shawcross said that charities often had a defensive mindset in the face of criticism, assuming that people who asked tough questions "must have it in for us".

He said the suggestion that the public did not understand charities was "too often reeled out as a convenient defence mechanism when charities are challenged".

The public did support the role of the commission, he said, even if it did lack some understanding of its exact duties.

Debating the motion with Shawcross were Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Joe Saxton, co-founder of the consultancy nfpSynergy, and Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB and chair of charity leaders group Acevo.

Etherington said that trust in the sector remained high, but there was "clearly some lack of understanding of what is a remarkably varied and complex sector".

He said: "We shouldn't overreact to every single criticism – don't chase the Twitter feed." The sector, he said, should develop a "capability of delivering tactical responses when under threat" – hence the NCVO's involvement in a newly formed "criticism working group" for charities.

Saxton said that the public generally existed in a "rosy fog of ignorance", lacking a true understanding of how charities operated. "When they see the ways charities work in the modern day, they say 'oh, I'm not quite sure I like that'," said Saxton.

He said that the commission's communications strategy was "woefully lacking", that it spent too little time working on public trust and that it engaged in "too much rattling of cages about if a little bit of money goes to terrorism".

Saxton agreed that there was a need to deal properly with criticism or public misconceptions of the sector. "We need to replace worries and concerns with evidence and understanding," he said.

Alexander said that it was difficult to reach a conclusion on the motion. "To try to get a certain understanding of what the public thinks as one cohesive whole is quite a challenge," she said. But she said she frequently came across people who were surprised to learn and disapproved of the fact that she was paid money by her charity, indicating a fundamental misunderstanding of the sector.

Like Saxton, Alexander also questioned whether the commission was doing enough in its role as what she called a "champion of the sector", pointing out that the level of publicity its investigations achieved was in huge disproportion to the enormous numbers of well-run charities doing great work.

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