"Crisis? What Crisis?" This Sun headline entered the language in January 1979 when the then Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, returned from a summit in sunny Guadeloupe to speak dismissively about the proliferating strikes in the so-called Winter of Discontent. And this week a conflict of opinion about the fallout of the Olive Cooke case inevitably brought this resonant and ingenious phrase once again to mind.
The crisis part was set out in a speech by William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, who declared that the issues highlighted by the case "have clearly caused great anxiety among the public" and concluded that "this is a crisis for the charity sector that is testing the strength and capacity of self-regulation". He emphasised the role of trustees in setting fundraising policy, said he supported a wholesale review of the Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Fundraising Practice and warned that the commission might take regulatory action once the review of the case by the Fundraising Standards Board had established the facts.
The "what crisis?" riposte came the following day from Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, who is frequently at loggerheads with Shawcross: indeed, the pair are given to exchanging letters that are said to put pressure on the boundaries of civility. Bubb said the speech was "disappointing" (the contemporary euphemism for "infuriating") and he expected the commission and its chair to "rise above the noise of the tabloids" and "speak out for and support the organisations they regulate". What Shawcross was saying about a crisis was simply not true, he said, and merely made for another lurid headline.
The essential question raised by this exchange is whether the feeding frenzy in some national papers indicates that the issues in the Olive Cooke case really do reflect the great public anxiety Shawcross speaks of. Many would argue that tabloid outrage usually represents the concerns and prejudices of those who own and run tabloids. They would also point out that tabloid outrage is often not based in fact, as was the case here: Cooke’s family specifically denied that direct mail overload had, as the Daily Mail put it, "hounded to death" a woman who had been dedicated to charities all her life.
Tabloids do exaggerate and play on prejudice, but they also, like the rest of the media, often have a knack of putting their finger on what people more generally are exercised about. The fact that they have done so in this case appears to be confirmed by supporting evidence – the upsurge in complaints to the FRSB since the story came out, the findings of various opinion polls and, crucially, the admissions of fundraisers themselves. Senior people in the sector currently raise the subject, often in anxious tones, before being asked about it and acknowledge that questions such as the frequency of asking and the swapping of lists should be reconsidered.
Shawcross might be going a bit far to say this is a crisis for the entire "charity sector", and the word crisis always gives rise to semantic quibbling. But he is entirely correct to say that the case is "testing the strength and capacity of self-regulation". Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, concurs, inasfar as he has called the case "a watershed for fundraising" and said that complex issues had been raised would need careful working through.
Fortunately, this is happening: the Institute of Fundraising, which sets the Code of Fundraising Practice used by the FRSB, has embarked on that process, taking into account recommendations from the FRSB. This, of course, highlights the fact that the FRSB is not in control of the code it works by, which is considered by many to be a significant faultline in the self-regulatory system. We shall have to see what comes out of the IoF process and whether improvements in the system recommended by a report by consultants last year are implemented more quickly. The IoF confirmed last week that it would in future recruit an independent chair for the standards committee that sets the code, which is welcome.
The Shawcross-Bubb spat, meanwhile, raises a fundamental difference of view about the role of the Charity Commission that is unlikely to go away. Bubb, like many in the sector, thinks it is the watchdog’s role to "speak out for and support the organisations it regulates". Shawcross takes care in his speeches to extol the vibrancy and diversity of the charitable world, but makes it clear that he sees the commission’s primary role as promoting compliance by trustees and holding charities to account. Bubb considers the regulator to be using too much of its resources on "hard enforcement". For the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that the pendulum is swinging in the Shawcross direction. The sector will have to live with that.