Interview: Lord Grade regrets nothing

The outspoken chair of the Fundraising Regulator tells Rebecca Cooney that controversial comments he has made were mild and absolutely justified

Lord Grade
Lord Grade

Lord Grade might have been heavily criticised for his choice of language during his time as chair of the Fundraising Regulator but he remains unrepentant.

Grade, who became the regulator's first chair in November 2015, has referred to fundraisers as "cowboys" operating in a lawless "wild west" in one interview and criticised those who had not signed up to pay the fundraising levy as "laggards" in another.

Grade will relinquish his role in December and even as the sun begins to set on his stint as chair, he’s not about to take back some of controversial comments he’s made.

"That’s my style, that’s who I am – I thought it was very mild actually," he tells Third Sector, adding that he believes his comments were "absolutely" justified and reflected the public’s view.

"You can pussyfoot around these issues, but actually you’re trying to grab people’s attention, get to the nub of the issue and make them concentrate. I think it was very effective.

"The sector might not like it, but being a regulator isn’t a popularity contest."

But Grade says the sector has shifted, and he has moved with it.

"I think we’re moving to a phase where the sector is behaving responsibly and reacting well to criticism," he says. "We’ll follow the language and the tone of voice of the sector.

"If we need to use sharper language we’ll never hesitate to use it I suspect, but I think things are on a fairly even keel at the moment."

In a milder moment, he also recognises that charities will, like all organisations, get things wrong.

"Everyone makes mistakes – they happen, they’re a fact of life," he says. "The best result after a complaint is that the charity says ‘yes, we got it wrong and this is what we’re doing to put it right’. That’s constructive regulation. There’s no point just blaming people."

Setting up a new regulator from scratch, with the press, public and government calling for swift action in the wake of the 2015 fundraising scandals, wasn’t easy, says Grade. The early days were "an absolute marathon of great patience in the face of great hostility".

But he says many of the difficulties of the brief have been overcome. "Most of all I think we’ve taken a lot of fear out of the minds of the sector," he says. "They were very fearful that we were there to stop fundraising."

And he argues that the regulator has succeeded in differentiating itself from its predecessor, the Fundraising Standards Board.

"We’re better funded, we’ve got a very clear remit, we’ve got huge political support and we’re independent," he says. "That’s been transformational; that’s the big change."

Despite the even keel, the future of non-statutory regulation is far from certain, he says. Whether it survives, Grade says, is partly down to the sector and whether it continues to support the regulator "emotionally and financially", including by paying the voluntary levy to fund it, which he acknowledges has "by and large" happened.

It also depends on the regulator itself, he says.

"If we were to get it wrong in a very big and controversial way, then I think the case for statutory would come in straight away," he says.

But Grade admits it could also be at the mercy of forces beyond its control.

"If the government decides it doesn’t want to go on funding the Charity Commission and that the sector itself should fund it through a levy, then absolutely there’ll have to be a conversation about how that would work for the Fundraising Regulator," he says.

"If they go to a levy, the government and the sector would have to work out whether they get two levies or if we get folded into the Charity Commission and, by virtue of that, become statutory."

But that’s an issue for the future. He’s hesitant to speculate on what qualities his successor will need to take the organisation forward.

"When I’ve come into a job I’ve always resented my predecessors," he says, admitting wryly that this could be why he jumped at the chance to be the founding chair of the organisation.

But he says the next focus for the regulator needs to be raising awareness of its existence among members of the public, as well as promoting its Fundraising Preference Service, which allows people to block contact from certain charities.

In May, Third Sector’s report Donating Trends in the UK 2018, based on a survey of more than 2,000 UK adults, found that 75 per cent of respondents hadn’t heard of the FPS, even though it was heavily promoted in the media last year.

"We’ve got to get the message out there," Grade says. "What we don’t want to do is spend millions on marketing. That’s not a good use of money. We’ve got to be clever and imaginative."

It’s a dilemma many charities will be familiar with.

Looking back over his time as chair, he has brought to the role an ability to pick good people and leave them to get on with the job, he says, praising former chief executive Stephen Dunmore and Dunmore’s successor Gerald Oppenheim for their "tireless" efforts to engage with the sector.

As for Lord Grade, will he be continuing to engage with the sector after he leaves?

He’s been a trustee of many charities, but currently he’s on the boards only of the Science Museum in London and the anti-poverty charity Live Aid – and he’s not looking to take any more on.

"I’m getting on in life and looking for some time off," he says.

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