That was then
I was appointed as the first chair of the Charity Commission in 2004, having previously been a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner.
It was an honour, and the future looked bright.
The role of commission chair had not previously existed. I agreed with David Blunkett, (then home secretary), that it was good practice to split the chief commissioner’s role into two – a chair, and a chief executive.
As we prepared to make the commission “fit for purpose” in implementing a new charities act, we would be practicing what we preach.
I spent my first day at the commission appearing before a select committee looking at what would become the Charities Act 2006, which I would have to guide through parliament.
There had been a lot of pressure on the commission leading up to this encounter, and I was expected to explain how the regulator could be improved immediately.
I decided to be bold and challenge the select committee’s surprisingly ill-informed questions about the lack of public trust in charities.
I said I was not responsible for the “sins of my fathers”, and that I would rather look at what we could do to listen better to the public, and demonstrate good enabling practices for the not-for-profit sector to develop responsibly.
What to do?
At the time, the commission was seen as a fusty organisation that didn’t use its teeth – it might take a nip at you, but it didn’t bite.
The commission and the sector had also never enjoyed a particularly high profile.
Newspapers highlighted wrongdoing, and charities were exposed for bad practice. The commission was not seen as proactive, and the relevant government office and minister were almost invisible, which meant there was no real vision for not-for-profit work in the UK at that time.
I felt the dual role of the commission as both a regulator and mentor could produce a very good synergy, which should offer services for all not-for-profit organisations.
However, there was a big problem. When the Charities Act 2006 went through parliament, the House of Lords and House of Commons both decided to give the responsibility of defining public benefit to the Charity Commission.
This was a bit gobsmacking, but all staff were willing to take on the challenge and, feeling it could offer a more strategic approach to focusing cross-sector working, were keen to have the public play a role in shaping the definition.
We put forward a joint proposal with the BBC called The Great Debate, which involved local community discussions that any member of the public could contribute to, and culminated in a Paxman-type public audience programme where the audience voted on the four main values of public benefit.
Unfortunately the project was never completed after I left the commission, and the charity legislation ultimately arrived in the statute books with no clear definition of public benefit.
The commission was also involved in the early days of social enterprise initiatives.
I sat on Sir Ronald Cohen’s social investment taskforce for the government, and the commission produced new guidance on social investments for trustees. Charities were learning the value of a mixed economy funding base.
This is now
When I left the commission unexpectedly to live in Canada, I had high hopes of the good start we had made.
So I was disappointed on my return, some 10 years later, to find not only that little had changed, but the commission seemed to be moving backwards to a policing role, and there was general confusion of identity in the sector as a whole.
But in these dismal days of the pandemic, the work of charities has at last begun to be recognised and provide life-sustaining initiatives for communities.
My appointment to the commission was non-political – I had run several charities and infrastructure bodies, and we hoped to bring a breath of fresh air in our approach.
Unfortunately, there is now a growing gap between people from all sectors when working together on how to interpret their roles as the touchstone of public benefit, and the challenge persists.
Infinity and beyond
To ensure the successful development of a non-profit sector, here are a few of the things that I have picked up along the way.
Firstly, people living through the pandemic are more willing to help and be helped by their neighbours and the community.
Cross-sector working backed up by social enterprise is also growing: such as an upcoming report from the Church of England that explores church and the community and offers opportunities for working together to change charity law that is unhelpful on the disposal of assets.
To thrive in the future, people must think laterally and move away from old models – especially the commission.
The government now has an opportunity to unite with the sector and start to look at how things can be done differently – perhaps even building a new sector agency with public benefit at its core.
Any new agency should be independent of the government, and independent financially.
It could use existing resources more effectively – such as Companies House taking on registration, or the tax office helping with financial regulation. Legal services could be run at a local level, with solicitors working within the community to help develop self-evaluation services.
I also believe that becoming a charity should be redefined, and a new definition of "charitable activity" should be found.
This would rid us of old-style philanthropy, and bring in a culture of investment.
No one said leading the Charity Commission would be easy.
But not being answerable to a minister is very liberating, and you can make things move faster. There is a lot of scope for renaissance for the “greater good” – it’s something I hope the incoming chair will consider.
Think about it.
Geraldine Peacock was chair of the Charity Commission between 2004 and 2006