People trust charities no more than strangers they meet, says chair of regulator

Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, tells the NCVO annual conference that charities can't expect the public to give them the benefit of the doubt when scandals occur

Baroness Stowell (Photograph: NCVO/Rebecca Fennell)
Baroness Stowell (Photograph: NCVO/Rebecca Fennell)

The public trusts charities only as much as the average stranger in the street, and the sector must address the public’s concerns on issues including high pay and safeguarding if it is to prosper, according to Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission.

In her first major speech since being appointed earlier this year, Stowell told delegates at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference in London this morning that charities "are no longer trusted automatically by the public" and could not expect the public to give them the "benefit of the doubt" when scandals emerge.

She cited ongoing research being carried out by the commission, the results of which are to be published later this year, that she said showed people "now trust charities no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street".

Stowell said this was partly due to a loss of trust among the public in all institutions, greater experience of how organisations had let people down in the past and the high standards expected of the charity sector.

"All a charity has is its purpose," Stowell said. "So when a charity’s purpose is undermined, whether through misconduct or other failures, your very reason for existence comes into question.

"That’s why people are so appalled when charity workers in a devastated country exploit the vulnerable they were sent to help.

"That’s why people feel betrayed when charities seem to respond to misconduct among senior staff by protecting the charity’s reputation, rather than by rooting out and stopping the bad practice.

"And that’s what leads them to question very high pay in charities and doubt whether money that’s raised and donated makes it to the end cause."

She said transparency needs to increase so the public has "proof that you are who you say you are" and that charities are solely focused on the end result and the difference they make.

The Charity Commission would also play a major role in helping to rebuild trust in the charity sector, said Stowell, and focus on relaying the public’s expectations of charities to the sector.

"The commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you," she said.

"To help you understand what the public expect and to help you respond."

Stowell also addressed the idea of the regulator charging charities to fund its work, saying that any requests by the commission for more funding would not happen until after the commission’s new strategy was published in the summer.

She said the regulator should be "clear about its purpose" before making the case for how to fund it.

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