Matthew Sherrington: Is the Charity Commission chair causing too much collateral damage?

William Shawcross needs to think more before speaking out, writes our online guest columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

William Shawcross clearly enjoys being a controversialist and his appointment as chair of the Charity Commission a year ago was itself controversial. He said he wouldn’t stop being outspoken, but had to promise MPs "that if appointed he would take advice from fellow commissioners before writing anything likely to spark undue controversy".

I wonder who he’s taking advice from, because one year on one has to wonder whether his style is appropriate for the charity regulator. One of his stated aims was to improve trust and confidence in charities, but he’s going about it in a strange way.

As outlined in last week’s Third Sector, charities are facing the most hostile environment in years, and Shawcross has played no small part in fuelling that. A year ago he was questioning charities’ right to campaign. In March, the Charity Commission’s failing over the Cup Trust tax dodge scandal was "a disaster for trust and confidence in charities", he acknowledged.

Over the summer he weighed in on chief executive salaries of international aid organisations, just as the Disasters Emergency Committee was highlighting the growing crisis in Syria, with refugees passing the 2 million mark while funding was short. What was more damaging to trust and confidence in that moment – the question of salary levels itself or William Shawcross deciding it was the moment to be "outspoken"?

Worse, this weekend saw the Daily Telegraph’s front page screaming "Charity millions going to Syrian terror groups... the charity watchdog has warned". Or not, as it turned out. "Speculative, and not what we know", Shawcross belatedly posted on the Charity Commission website, while the DEC has to waste time on damage control.

But the damage is done. His correction won’t be on the front page of the Telegraph. What was he – as a former trustee of the DEC – thinking, engaging in such a non-story? Humanitarian work is difficult and dangerous enough. Charities have to manage money in disaster zones where banking systems have collapsed, and are increasingly transparent when things go wrong. Aid workers get killed. They do not need hypothetical "speculation" about being linked to terrorism.

So, what’s the collateral damage? To the reputation of our leading aid agencies. To the case for international humanitarian aid. Worse, to the aid effort for the 2 million refugees, mostly women and children, in desperate need of help in camps across the Syrian borders. Because, although the charities will be too polite to say it themselves, his comments have cost them millions of pounds in appeal income.

By all means, Mr. Shawcross, be a controversialist. But being the charity regulator is giving your irresponsible comments dangerous weight. Time to give one or other role up.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant in fundraising and strategic communications. Follow him on Twitter

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