Newsmaker: Fundhellraiser - Philip Cowen, director, Charity Check

John Plummer

Most people in the voluntary sector probably haven't heard of Philip Cowen. His views aren't popular and his organisation, Charity Check, is small. Yet few individuals have had a greater effect on the reputation of fundraising in parliamentary and public life in recent months.

Cowen, 67, raised sector hackles in January, when a Liberal Democrat MP tabled an Early Day Motion on his behalf claiming the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association "does not operate any serious regulatory standards".

PFRA chairman Timothy Hornsby dismissed his views as "pernicious nonsense".

Cowen, however, believes he is raising legitimate questions that others prefer to ignore. So the question arises: is he friend or foe?

If he is an enemy, he is the enemy within. As a former director of the National Children's Charities Trust, Cowen knows the sector. His work at the trust, which organises flag days in London, prompted him to take up the mantle of self-appointed fundraising watchdog a decade ago.

"We saw a lot of dodgy charity collections," he says. "It's so simple.

Once you're registered, which is no trouble, the authorities bend over backwards to help you." Charity Check investigates fundraising charities on behalf of local authorities and retail property owners. Cowen also feeds newspapers with stories that face-to-face fundraisers can't be trusted.

But his views have only recently begun to bite as transparency and accountability have moved up the agenda.

Cowen believes the Charity Commission, the Institute of Fundraising and the PFRA are more interested in preserving the status quo than protecting fundraising's reputation.

The commission, he says, is guilty of pretending its gift of charitable status confers reputability. "You can't say that being registered is any sort of kitemark, but that is the impression that is often given," he says. The PFRA's main function, according to the Early Day Motion, "appears to be to promote bookings for direct debit collections by its member bodies".

Cowen's trenchant views and his eagerness to impart them have not endeared him to the sector. Until the motion, which claimed the PFRA code of conduct fell short of Home Office guidance issued in 2003, his enemies tended to ignore him. But when 20 MPs signed it, Hornsby spoke out. "Some malign critic of face-to-face fundraising has nobbled these MPs," he said, denying any such guidance had ever been issued.

The Home Office agreed, saying its comments, which related to street fundraisers being required to tell potential donors what they earn, were made in response to a press inquiry and did not constitute official guidance.

Cowen, a solicitor who stood for election to Parliament as a Liberal twice in the 1980s, isn't letting go. "It's a little strange to say this," he says. "Lots of policy statements are issued in response to media inquiries."

Nevertheless, the draft Charities Bill indicated the tide was turning in his favour by suggesting the Home Office "should issue guidance on the information required to be given by paid fundraisers to potential donors".

Cowen welcomes this but isn't convinced it will happen now the Charities Bill has fallen. Nor does he have confidence in the self-regulation of fund-raising unit. He predicts it will fail.

Whatever the outcome, Cowen vows not to go quietly. "Those who object have a vested interest in not taking any notice of the facts we produce because they wouldn't make as much money if they told the public what they were doing," he says. "If people are determined not to obey good practice, what can one do but point it out?"

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