Rebuild trust in the sector so you can address divisions in society, commission chair urges charities

Baroness Stowell says charities are 'not delivering their full potential as sources of belonging and cohesion'

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

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.

Speaking at the regulator's annual public meeting in Bristol today, Baroness Stowell said charities could help to bridge divides in a country riven by Brexit and "foster respect and admiration between people who look, sound and think very differently from one another, and who feel little natural sympathy or solidarity".

But she said charities were failing to live up to their potential to address some of the problems highlighted by Brexit and called on charities to do more to rebuild trust in the sector.

"Charities collectively are not delivering their full potential as sources of belonging and cohesion," Stowell said.

"People no longer automatically assume that charitable organisations reflect or share their understanding of charitable endeavour and behaviour.

"I believe we can and must change that."

Stowell said a forthcoming report on senior pay in the charity sector would help charities meet public expectations in this area.

"We are not a pay regulator, but we do understand why the public care about how charities pay their staff," she said. "Because, in many ways, these issues serve as windows into a charity’s soul.

"They help the public see whether or not a charity is behaving and thinking in an authentically charitable way, distinct from the attitudes that might prevail in a commercial organisation that is focused on growth and expansion."

Stowell said the commission was also working to improve. A recent investigation into a supported housing provider based in Bristol had prompted the regulator to raise a general lack of agreed basic standards in the supported housing sector with the government, she added.

The regulator would, such as in this case, stop "skirting around" broader issues stemming from its investigative work and fully address what went wrong and why, Stowell said.

The commission was also analysing low-level complaints about charities to understand more about how charities could avoid upsetting beneficiaries, donors or employees, she said.

"In our current analysis of these low-level complaints, one theme is already emerging quite clearly: the crucial importance of openness," Stowell said.

"What our data suggests is that when people feel a charity has brought the shutters down, doubts and questions – and doubts about the motives of those running the charity – can begin to fester.

"Conversely, where charities respond openly and genuinely to complaints they receive, they can often reassure the complainant about the charity’s probity, even if they can’t provide the specific remedy the complainant had been hoping for."

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