Peter Stanford: The challenge of being the Charity Commission's chief executive

Helen Stephenson faces a difficult task in ensuring the regulator provides reassurance to both the charity sector and the government, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There are some jobs that are simply poisoned chalices. The example of an undoable post most often quoted is that of Archbishop of Canterbury, simultaneously leader of the Church of England, which operates in a liberal, secular society, and head of the worldwide Anglican communion, where national churches are often deeply traditional.

Another leader who will have the challenge of facing in two directions at the same time is Helen Stephenson, the newly appointed chief executive of the Charity Commission. It is, arguably, a measure of what a tough task it can be that the incumbent, Paula Sussex, who arrived with such high hopes, is leaving after just three years and has not revealed if she has any job to go to. For the chief executive of the commission must reassure the sector that its best interests are understood and at the very core of what the regulator is doing, while also reassuring the government, which has become overly concerned of late about allegedly lax regulation, financial scandals and the misuse of charitable status by people and bodies that don’t have the best interests of our society at heart.

This is not something to be undertaken by faint hearts, but Stephenson appears on paper to have the right combination of experience. Her civil service background as director of early years and childcare at the Department for Education suggests someone adept at remaining standing on the moving carpet that is ministerial whim. And her tenure as chair of the National Childbirth Trust has seen her at the coalface of governance issues at a large, well-known and outspoken charity.

Although some question marks have been raised by a small group of NCT members about quite how well she carried out that second task, the overwhelming message from those who know Stephenson is that she is a safe pair of hands. Certainly she will need to be sure-footed in the weeks and months ahead in repairing the feeling, widespread in the third sector, that the commission has become more punitive than nurturing of late, and that commissioners have been appointed less for their knowledge of what makes charities tick than how their faces fitted with the government’s agenda and distribution of patronage.

For that impression truly to be erased, however, the next big appointment for the commission is the crucial one. William Shawcross’s term of office as chair draws to a close this year. Who will replace him is already the subject of much speculation.

It is often said that the state of the relationship between chair and chief executive of any charity is the key to success or the harbinger of failure. The same rule, surely, applies to the Charity Commission itself. A safe pair of hands from the civil service as the new chair alongside the similar talents of Helen Stephenson might give too much of an "insider" feel. For all his talents as, first, a campaigning journalist and, later, as th,e official biographer of the Queen Mother, Shawcross’s hands-on experience of the sector was hardly large by anyone’s definition, while his patrician air on occasion has had too much of the clubbable gent about it for those whose charities are doing challenging work at the sharp end of social deprivation.

The key task now is to restore and, indeed, increase public confidence in charities. It should be part of our national DNA, but has taken a battering of late. There is a case for someone more obviously in touch with an anti-establishment public mood, a skilled advocate who can spell out the value of charities in mending and moulding our society, and one who is more at ease in the world of modern communications. Such a combination could make an effective team with Helen Stephenson.

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

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