Own up to your mistakes, Charity Commission chair tells charities

At the regulator's annual meeting yesterday, Baroness Stowell said the sector needed to discuss its reforms in public to regain trust and confidence

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

Charities must own up to past mistakes and explain publicly how fundraising policies are being reformed if they are to convince the public that bad behaviour in the sector is being tackled, according to Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission.

Speaking at the commission’s annual meeting in Manchester yesterday, Stowell said she had recently spoken to the leader of a household charity that had made significant, and welcome, changes to its fundraising tactics, though these had resulted in reduced income.

But she said that, although the changes made by the charity were "inspiring long-term trust and confidence", its reforms needed to be discussed in a public forum to make the required impact.

"For that charity, and all the others making changes like it, to gain the full, long-term benefit of the change they have made in terms of growing public support and confidence they need to be open about it and explain why that change makes them better able to deliver on their purpose and is in the public interest," she said.

"That might involve saying that the way they used to approach donors was not good enough. But it is only by describing how public concerns are being responded to that the charity sector will convince the public that change is afoot and their expectations are understood and being met."

Stowell also warned that charities were facing other societal issues, such as the impact of new technology, communities feeling left behind and forgotten, environmental problems and the divisions caused by Brexit, coupled with growing public distrust in national institutions.

This meant that charities had to show they understood and reacted to public concerns about how the sector conducted itself, she said.

"What the public wants is for charities to show that they understand these expectations," she said.

"Charities must show that they know they are the custodians of something very precious. The concept or notion of charity is not and cannot be defined by the institutions on our register, because charity belongs to everyone."

She said the commission would be more confident speaking out in future after the introduction of its new strategy next month, and warned that charities needed to ensure they had the public’s support "both explicitly and tacitly".

Stowell also told the audience in Manchester that a report on the commission’s Oxfam inquiry would be published soon, as well as new guidance for charities that have close relationships with non-charitable organisations.

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