Peter Stanford: Advice for the new chair of the Charity Commission

There are a few strategies Baroness Stowell can use to get the charity sector onside in her first few months in office, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Now that Tina Stowell has had time to get her feet under the table as the new chair of the Charity Commission, she will no doubt be busy identifying her priorities for her three-year tenure. The task is made all the harder because her appointment hardly came about in a blaze of glory. Her background as a very recent Tory Cabinet minister – Leader of the House of Lords – caused some to label her as the beneficiary of political cronyism, while the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee formally rejected her, before being overruled by the minister, Matt Hancock.

So it occurred to me that she can do with all the help she can get in winning over hearts and minds in the sector if she is going to achieve anything. Presumptuous, I know, but in my very limited experience of such matters the best leaders, especially when having been parachuted into a job for debatable reasons, turn out to be those who consult widely before deciding what course of action to adopt. Here, then, are some thoughts from a trustee’s perspective.

Forgive me if I start with the messaging. It has hardly gone well so far, after all, but one way of guaranteeing you will alienate at least half of the sector is if you insist on the baroness bit. Yes, titles are essential within the time-honoured formalities of the House of Lords, but do remember that there is a clear majority in the country for replacing the appointed second chamber. The outward signs of privilege can be especially tricky to carry off in the charity world – unless you are one of the young royals – so I would learn a lesson from the patrician William Shawcross and do everything you can to make yourself look more approachable and in tune with us than he did.

More substantially, there has been a switch since 2010 in what the Charity Commission’s regulatory function actually means, with it moving away from being champion, supporter and wise counsellor to the third sector, and instead embracing a more headteacherly tone. Part of that has been a function of events – scandals about how a tiny, tiny minority of charities have operated and criticism of the commission’s failure to step in sooner to stop them. Part of that, too, has been the diminution of available resources, meaning that all the softer side of the commission’s work has had to be scaled down. 

But if you arrive in office labelled as the government’s candidate, one easy way to dispel any negative impressions is to demonstrate, clearly and unequivocally, that you want to help charities to do the wonderful things they do even better, rather than constantly take them to task. In appointing Tina Stowell, the minister charged her with "protecting and promoting the great work that charities do" and emphasised that aspect before he added "ensuring they uphold the highest standards of integrity". In this order of priorities, doing the government’s bidding will be a blessing.

For all the criticisms made of it, the House of Lords does teach those who try to lead it one vital skill: they have to reach a consensus. With no in-built Tory majority since Tony Blair kicked out almost all of the hereditary peers, successive leaders of the upper chamber have had to listen, engage, persuade, compromise and meet others halfway. It’s a good model for engaging with a charitable sector that is more bruised at this particular moment than I can remember in my three decades as a trustee.

Playing to the populist gallery – where the good work of charities is routinely overlooked, if not trashed, and their flaws trumpeted – might be tempting for one with such recent experience of front-line politics, but the chair of the Charity Commission has to be better than that.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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