Ian MacQuillin: Fundraisers must fight hard to resist restrictions on what they do

The government and the regulator have a vision for the charity sector that is ideologically opposed to the one it has for itself, so let's be careful about the limits we accept on fundraising

It’s probably inevitable that regulators and those they regulate often don’t get on. After all, the regulator regularly stops the regulated doing things they want to do.

But even though tensions exist, regulated and regulators are often on the same side. Ofsted and teachers both want good education. HM Inspector of Constabulary and the police both want a high standard of policing. They just might sometimes disagree on how to do that.

But sometimes regulators and regulated have fundamentally different views about what the regulated sector or industry should be doing. The regulated sector wants to do one thing; the regulator wants it to do something else.

That’s what we’ve had with the Charity Commission under the chairship of the current incumbent, Baroness Stowell, and her immediate predecessor William Shawcross.

This is part of an ignoble trend – which goes back at least 15 or 20 years – in which the government and regulators bend charities to their ideological vision for the third sector, where it a) is primarily accountable to the donating public ahead of the people it serves, and b) provides tactical, but not strategic (which would require charities to get involved in lobbying for policy change), help for beneficiaries – in other words, charities should "stick to their knitting".

The Charity Commission is the current ideological standard bearer – and for an analysis, I’d recommended recent blogs by Debra Allcock Tyler, Andrew Purkis and Rebecca Cooney, particularly Debra’s insight that the commission is (possibly wilfully) conflating public benefit with public popularity.

The commission’s approach is ideologically aligned with that of the government and the Office for Civil Society, from which the infamous claim that "charities should stick to their knitting" emerged in 2014, in connection to the so-called lobbying act.

So what’s this got to do with fundraising?

If you have a political vision for some or other thing, what’s a great way to get the public onside with that vision? Find something they don’t like, play that up for all its worth and then present your vision as the solution.

Enter fundraising.

So much of the political and ideological interference in charities has been in connection to fundraising. I recall someone from government saying in the early noughties that fundraising was in the "last chance saloon" to impose self-regulation (yet it was still running up a tab at that same establishment in 2015, nine years after self-regulation was set up, and according to some political commentators, it’s got a Stammtisch there).

Of course, 2015 was the year of the "Fundraising Crisis", during which a weaponised anti-fundraising campaign was delivered gift-wrapped with a bow to Rob Wilson, the then minister for civil society.

After ripping open the wrapping paper and following the assembly instructions, Wilson was able to foist upon the sector the Fundraising Preference Service, which, by any reasonable metric, has been a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Fundraising is a bellwether for political/ideological intervention in the charity sector. Yet not only do plenty of people ignore this and fail to recognise it for what it is, they actually welcome these interventions.

In 2013, NCVO led the charge against the lobbying act, calling it a Trojan horse. Two years later the same organisation played a key role in drawing up plans for the FPS – an initiative presented as protecting donors by giving them more choice, but which could also be seen as a politically-motivated restriction on fundraising.

We’re back to the boring and rather cracked record of fundraising being the necessary evil that the rest of the charity sector tolerates but really doesn’t like. So when the government imposes restrictions on fundraising, many sector staff are all for it.

Yet if we are going to fight hard to stop the state imposing ideological restrictions on what charities do, we should fight equally hard to stop the state imposing an ideological restrictions on how charities ask the public to fund what they do.

State intervention in fundraising is a Trojan horse. Why do we so often open the gate and let it in?

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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