William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, has said he is surprised that charities are "affronted" to receive criticism about such issues as chief executive pay.
Speaking at a conference on impact organised by the Charity Finance Group and New Philanthropy Capital in London today, Shawcross said the sector had a duty to help the public understand what it takes to run a charity in the 21st century.
This duty, he said, involved explaining why it is "sometimes necessary" to pay high salaries to attract the most able people, why charities consider campaigning such an important way for them to help and support their beneficiaries, and why charities think it is their role to tell "uncomfortable truths" to people in power.
"I would like to say that I have, on occasion, been surprised by charities’ response to criticism," said Shawcross. "My impression, especially in the debate around executive pay, has been that the sector was taken aback, affronted even, by the very notion that charities might be criticised or questioned.
"I suspect that is rooted in a sense that charities deserve to be handled with kid gloves simply because they are charities and therefore inherently good."
Shawcross said charities had occasionally expected the commission to defend them for decisions such as salary levels, which was not within the regulator’s remit. It was not the commission’s role to defend or represent charities, he said.
"Charities are responsible and accountable for themselves," Shawcross said. "And being accountable means answering the difficult questions – and occasionally responding to public concern."
Shawcross said that as public expectations of charities increased, so would the frequency with which charities were challenged and questioned about the way they operate and the role they play.
"Rather than fearing this exposure, charities should, I believe, welcome public debate as an opportunity to explain how you work and how much difference you are making to the lives of your beneficiaries," he said.
He welcomed the National Council for Voluntary Organisations inquiry into chief executive pay and plans to develop guidance for trustees on the issues.
"It is completely correct for the sector itself to demonstrate leadership on the big issues of the day," he said.
Shawcross said the work of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, a group of sector experts formed in 2011 to consider issues affecting charities’ independence, was another example of such leadership. Shawcross said it was right to identify independence as one of the fundamental principles of charity that needed to be protected.
But he said he disagreed slightly with its latest report’s suggestion that the commission should play a more active role in assessing and promoting charities’ independence.
"I think they have demonstrated by example that the sector is perfectly capable of demonstrating leadership in these kinds of areas without the commission’s help."
Opening the conference, Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, echoed the words of Trevor Morris, visiting professor of public relations at the University of Westminster, that charities had been under attack in 2013 and that the age of innocence for the sector was over.
"If it’s right that the age of innocence is over, then charities are probably not going to have any less of a bumpy ride in 2014," she told delegates. "We think that transparency and impact – why we exist and how we articulate that to supporters – is the antidote to that sustained attack."