Joe Saxton: The sector badly needs its own Cobra

An overarching coordinator is required as there is little sign of charities pulling together for the common good, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

There was little good to be said about 2016 from the sector's point of view. Not just because of the external shocks to the world we in which we live, but also because within the sector there is little sign we are getting our house in order.

If the goal is to produce a charity sector with a sustainable future, in which all sizes of charities can thrive, understood by their key stakeholders, I fear we are little closer to that goal. One bright spot is the creation of the Fundraising Regulator, with its more muscular approach and bigger budget.

If you want to see the sector pulling together for its collective good, you'd better look away now. It isn't happening. There are numerous separate initiatives to address "trust and confidence" in charities, including: the Commission on the Donor Experience; the Clore Social Leadership working group on trust and confidence; the Charity Futures programme from Acevo; the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector; the Charity Commission/Cass research on governance; New Philanthropy Capital's State of the Sector programme; the National Council for Voluntary Organisations/Acevo initiative that took over from the Understanding Charities Group; and the Lords Select Committee on Charities.

None of these initiatives on its own is a problem. Equally, there is little hope that their collective impact will be more than the sum of their individual parts. Worse, it might be that their recommendations or activities are in conflict. Put simply, there is no agreed strategy, or even approach, for tackling the issues that face the sector.

We need an over-arching committee that coordinates and drives our response to the external shocks that buffet the sector, and to drive changes in the sector. What we need is our own permanent version of the Cobra committee. Cobra is convened and coordinated by the government when there is a major threat or disaster and is chaired by the Prime Minister. In recent years, it has met because of the Brussels bombings, the threat of NHS workers striking, the floods in Christmas 2015 and a range of other issues.

We need this because there is so little coordination, so much overlap between the current initiatives and some glaring gaps. Everyone is working on initiatives to improve trust and confidence, but no one seems to be working on a strategy to maintain donated income, let alone increase it, over the next 10 to 20 years. And this in the face of the gloomiest fundraising climate I can remember in my 30 years in charities.

Everyone talks about governance too. But is anyone producing a definitive set of recommendations on a 10-year strategy to improve it? To produce any lasting change there will need to be a coordinated effort to invest and develop the agreed priorities.

At the root of the sector's difficulties is a lack of willingness to take tough decisions; a reluctance to address the real flaws in the sector. The declining public attitude to fundraising was evident from research for at least a decade before the Olive Cooke affair. We have known people were unhappy about high salaries for equally as long, but it took The Daily Telegraph's exposés to bring any kind of sector response.

Let's hope we can do a better job in the next decade of proactively tackling the sector's flaws and weak spots.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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