Peter Cardy's Agony Column: Scope's charity shop plan is great - if it can make it work

The sector veteran also offers answers to questions about Contact the Elderly's new name, retirement and the Charity Commission

Peter Cardy
Peter Cardy

Q: Do you think the plan announced by the new chief executive of Scope to make its shops focal points for communities is just pie in the sky?

A: We are well provided with charity shops in the low-income town where I live, but most of them are very short of space. Other activities would be a physical challenge and there are the planning regulations to consider. But how good if Scope can do this: it would be a lesson to high-street managers everywhere that mixed use can bring vitality to high streets, which are too often morbid environments where shops go to die.

Q: Iain Duncan Smith apparently thinks we should all work until we’re 75. Why didn’t you?

A: I had expected to work until I was 70, but in the event I retired from full-time work when I was 66. Since then I’ve realised that even though I do a mix of volunteer and paid part-time roles, I have neither the physical nor the intellectual stamina to work full-time. My guess is that the same is true for many people of my age. IDS has a gift for talking nonsense and, even worse, putting some of it into effect: look at the car crash that is universal credit.

Q: Despite offering to answer questions about the "£1m emergency" appeal, the Jubilee Sailing Trust has now said it won’t disclose the salaries of its management because of the General Data Protection Regulation. It says it is a trust and is obliged to provide information only to its members, who are the trustees. Can it refuse?

A: It seems there is some confusion here. The GDPR protects personal data; the charity’s accounts will show the top salaries in bands. And you can cross-reference the salaries that were offered when the top jobs (of which there were a surprising number until recently) were advertised. It is correct about not being obliged to answer public questions, and of course it is not subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. But given its recent appeal to a very wide constituency of supporters, donors and volunteers, it seems counter-productive to limit what it’s prepared to discuss. Moreover, its funding comes from the public, voluntarily, so public accountability is a moral if not a legal obligation. Do you think there is something it doesn’t want you to know?

Q: Do you think charities should go along with the latest issues of public concern? My trustees include several who are deeply concerned about climate change and who argue that we should be doing more to support that agenda. We are a charity that campaigns on neurological disease and it seems to me that this is not our business.

A: Climate change affects us all, but it isn’t in your charitable objects or in your strategic plan. At present, apart from a general expression of concern, you have no charitable resources to lend to the campaign. If, however, you were successful in securing funding for work on the link between, say, air pollution and neurological disorders, that would change the perspective.

Q: Rob Wilson, the former junior minister for civil society, admitted in a BBC programme that he rode on the back of the suicide of Olive Cooke to drive reforms to fundraising. Were you surprised?

A: I was appalled. Rob Wilson arrived in the job knowing little about the voluntary sector and left it soon after, knowing very little more. Nonetheless, he has pontificated about the sector ever since. Instead of genuine knowledge, he brought preconceptions, prejudices and a drive to make his mark. On that basis and with no solid evidence, he created the monster of the Fundraising Regulator, which has distorted the whole basis of charitable fundraising, to negligible benefit to donors but great cost to charities.

Q: What’s your opinion of renaming Contact the Elderly as "Re-engage"?

A: Scope, Relate… I thought the era of enigmatic charity names was behind us. I learned the hard way that names should reflect what an organisation is or does. A gimmick that works in your own head rarely means much to anyone else.

Q: Should charities be concerned about the bitter combative language being used by politicians?

A: On the face of it, politics is not the business of charities. But public discourse affects public action, and public figures who make it seem OK to trash people in speech can easily lead their supporters to trashing people in person, as it has in the USA. After all, what you say reflects what you think, and what you think decides what you do. The sector as a whole has an important role in standing up for human dignity and rights and should be decrying this kind of barbarous talk.

Q: Charities are failing to live up to their potential to address divisions in society and must do more to rebuild trust in the sector, according to the chair of the Charity Commission. Do you think this is justified?

A: Physician, heal thyself. Baroness Stowell suffers from breathtaking myopia. The commission has probably done as much damage to trust in charities as all the so-called "scandals" of recent years combined, by continuing to preach at and bad mouth the sector. It has also successfully undermined trust in itself as the regulator, with politically inspired appointments, bungled investigations and partisan policies.

Q: Do you agree that the charity regulator should be free to criticise charities?

A: Of course! But having been a member of three national regulatory bodies, I’m quite clear that it is both possible and necessary to regulate in support of a sector and not simply to try to beat it down. The Charity Commission has lost its way and has forgotten how to support the sector. Instead it seems to be working on the assumption that charities are the enemy and must be humiliated.

Peter Cardy is a sector veteran

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