The recent warning to charities from the head of the Charity Commission not to 'hound' people for money is long overdue if the sector is to win back public trust and respect.
The commission's chair, William Shawcross, has highlighted particular causes for public concern – aggressive targeting of the elderly, vulnerable and known benefactors by letters, nuisance calls and emails, and street fundraisers ('chuggers').
According to Shawcross, such practices have generated the widespread opinion that charities have lost sight of their values. Add the recent scandals surrounding Kids Company’s alleged financial mismanagement and Age UK’s recommending of an uncompetitive energy tariff to older people and it is plain to see why the third sector’s reputation is at its lowest ebb for many years.
What is needed is not just decisive action to address the concerns of those who support charities, but for this to be seen to be done.
With this in mind, there is no choice but to take a tougher line to prevent people being hounded on the street or in their own homes. Quite simply, self-regulation has not worked and to blame the media for charities being in the news for all the wrong reasons is mistaken.
While misbehaviour is confined to 'a few bad eggs', as Shawcross describes them, their actions have impacted on and tainted everyone – including organisations with scrupulously high standards. Unfortunately, smaller charities, or those less immediately attractive to donors, might be disproportionately hit by public antipathy.
At the very least, charities must be banned from certain forms of fundraising - notably cold-calling, chugging and other uninvited approaches, if they break much-needed stricter rules on their delivery.
Repeat offenders should be shut down, with greater personal liability for negligent trustees. This is not said lightly, as I have been a charity trustee myself for many years, but public protection must be top priority.
Beyond this, serious consideration should be given to prohibiting some practices altogether. Despite there being many calls for it to be outlawed, chuggers continue to ply our high streets. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t commercially viable, short-term – which probably means that, to a greater or lesser extent, they are pressuring people into handing over their details. However, their presence is a toxic one for charities long-term - and everyone will win if this ‘highway robbery’ is stopped or, at least, severely curtailed.
Visibly stricter regulation is needed as a priority - ideally following a high profile public consultation to establish exactly which fundraising techniques are acceptable.
The organisation and subsequent inspection, administration and enforcement of any new rules demand a robust, properly-funded, independent regulator. The big question is who would take on the responsibility?
Even if given the greater powers required, our almost nominal charity regulator, the Charity Commission, is too overextended to exercise them in its present form. The commission’s website says, "We register and regulate charities in England and Wales, to ensure that the public can support charities with confidence", but this is clearly not being achieved.
In recent years, successive governments have steadily underfunded, undermined, overruled and overstretched the commission to the point where it struggles to fulfil its brief. At the same time, the third sector has been forced to deliver previously publicly-financed services - hence more aggressive fundraising. This contradiction was always going to lead to less effective supervision at the very time it was required most.
To ensure control, the Charity Commission should be re-equipped, empowered and properly funded as an effective regulator – guiding and advising, enforcing standards and imposing proper sanctions - independent of political concerns.
These moves would lead to widespread complaints but only organisations that have anything to fear from a stricter regulatory regime are the ‘bad eggs’ Shawcross’ refers to - while those that already operate transparently and with high standards will reap enormous benefits.
Michele Todd is partner and specialist charity and wills lawyer with hlw Keeble Hawson