Lord Harris: 'I'm not just interested in making sure something ticks over and stays the same'

The second chair of the Fundraising Regulator tells Rebecca Cooney that he will bring a different perspective to the role last filled by Lord Grade

Lord Harris of Haringey
Lord Harris of Haringey

On the face of it, Lord Harris, who became chair of the Fundraising Regulator in January, is cut from a similar cloth to his predecessor, Lord Grade.

They share a race, gender, age bracket and a peerage (although, admittedly, for different parties: Harris is a Labour peer, whereas Grade is Conservative).

So how does Harris think he will be different in the role from the three-year-old regulator’s founding chair?

He acknowledges that both he and Grade come from slightly outside the sector, despite having previously engaged with it, and offer an external view of fundraising, but Harris suspects they have a slightly different style.

Much of the friction between Grade and the sector came about through Grade’s regular attacks on fundraisers and charities in the national media.

Harris says he doesn’t promise to refrain from using "a colourful turn of phrase" to describe charities he believes are failing to toe the line, but says it might be a different turn of phrase and a different perspective.

He does describe charities that have refused to pay the voluntary levy to fund the regulator, charged to all charities that spend more than £100,000 a year on fundraising, as "arrogant" in imagining they are too perfect to need to pay. But that still lacks the sting Grade's comments, who described such charities as "laggards" and "cowboys" operating in a lawless "wild west".

Harris has served on the boards of various charities, chairing the grant-maker the Wembley National Stadium Trust from 1996 until last year, spending six years as chair of the Freedom Charity, which educates young people about forced marriage, and between 2004 and 2008 serving as a trustee of Safer London, which works to prevent gang violence.

But what has most influenced the perspective he brings to the Fundraising Regulator role, he says, is his experience chairing National Trading Standards since 2013.

"At Trading Standards we have a team that looks at the way traditional scammers target vulnerable people, and there’s such a synergy between that and some of the issues in the charity sector scandals of 2015," he says.

"There are people who are essentially on suckers lists, which are passed between criminal outfits."

Harris is quick to clarify that he is not calling charities "criminal outfits", but says that both scammers and donor-list swapping ended up affecting the same people: the lonely, the vulnerable and those likely to feel obliged to comply with requests for money.

But despite bringing this experience to the role, he says he’s keen not to get stuck in the past.

Public confidence in the sector has proved resilient, despite the scandals of recent years. Nevertheless, Harris says: "There’s got to be a recognition that the environment charities operate in is going to be more challenging."

Brexit and its potential impact on the economy and people’s ability to give is one thing, he says, but other shifts are on the horizon.

"The way in which charities themselves operate is shifting and we’re going into a much more online world," he says. "The traditional models of giving are changing: you could get into all sorts of philosophical territory about people’s general sense of altruism and whether that’s shifting.

"So it might be that the market for charities, for fundraising, will become more difficult, more challenging, more competitive, and that makes it all the more important that there is an effective mechanism for safeguarding the legitimacy of those processes."

And, he says, the regulator needs to be able to respond to those changes.

In many ways, the regulator benefits from being a relatively young organisation and hasn’t had time to become stuck in its ways. Harris says the fact that it is voluntary, not statutory, means it is able to adapt to changing needs.

With statutory organisations, he says, "bitter experience of parliament has demonstrated that your regulatory framework might arrive rather too late for what you’re trying to regulate".

Recent developments, such as allowing online donation platforms to register with the regulator, the overhaul of the Code of Fundraising Practice to make it more accessible and next year’s planned review of the Fundraising Preference Service to ensure it is still the best way to block unwanted contact from charities, are a good start, he says.

"I haven’t come with a series of agendas, but what I’ve come with is an understanding of the need to respond to an ever-changing environment," Harris says.

"I’m not somebody who’s just interested in making sure something ticks over and stays the same – because it can’t."

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