Charity's position in society is slipping, warns chair of commission

Baroness Stowell tells charities not to get stuck focusing on short-term challenges but to look to the future

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

The voluntary sector’s focus on "short-sighted fire-fighting" risks missing "warning signals" that people no longer consider charity the best way to do good, Baroness Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission, has warned.

Speaking at a Charity2020 event in central London yesterday, Stowell acknowledged that even the "business-as-usual" challenges the sector was facing could be overwhelming, but she said charities should look further into the future if they wanted to avoid losing their place in society.

She added that many people were finding charities as organisations "disappointing", making them feel "deflated" and "cynical".

And she said the growth of informal philanthropy, fundraising platforms and purpose-led businesses should "remind all those involved in charity that they don’t have an immutable monopoly on doing good".

She told delegates: "A focus on short-sighted fire-fighting today risks complacency about charities’ place in society tomorrow. And that would be a mistake.

"Because while the sector is by some measures in sound health, there are clouds on the horizon, warning signals if you like.

"These signs tell us that, at best, charities as institutions are not meeting their potential, and, at worst, that charities’ place as the primary vehicles of philanthropy and social change in our country is being challenged."

These signals, she said, included evidence of a growing gap between public expectations of charity and the attitudes and behaviour they see in charitable institutions.

Stowell said that people had been upset by the safeguarding scandal because the wrongdoing happened in the name of charity. But she added that a deeper problem was that "those who are running charities do not acknowledge why such problems represent a betrayal of the meaning of charity".

Criticising the "self-serving" attitude of some organisations, she said: "When they try to justify [scandals] by reference to the charity’s noble purpose, or seek to put them in some sort of context to the greater good they achieve, or present abuses as collateral damage to be accepted and expected as they undertake their charitable work, that self-serving attitude frustrates – indeed, infuriates."

If charities wanted to thrive and remain at the heart of society, Stowell concluded, they would need to demonstrate that they "are more than organisations that have good aims", showing they were driven by their mission and demonstrating charitable behaviour in everything they did.

She offered examples of the merger between Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now, which she said happened not out of convenience or financial necessity but because it was right for their beneficiaries. She additionally cited a "large, household-name charity", which she did not name, that risked a short-term hit to its income when it developed a fundraising approach that treated donors with more respect.

"I want charities to offer more, many more such examples of charitable purpose and attitude," Stowell said. "And to shout them for the rooftops for all to see and hear."

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