The regulation of charities is a big issue all around the world

A case from the US is a reminder that accusations of political interference will always end badly for a charity regulator, writes Debra Morris

Debra Morris
Debra Morris

Although we might use different language to describe them, the growing institutional challenges faced by charity regulators across the globe are surprisingly similar, as I discovered when taking part in a symposium hosted by Chicago-Kent College of Law, called Nonprofit Oversight Under Siege: An International Comparison of Regulatory Models.

As an academic whose research focuses on charity law and policy in England, forays abroad tend to shed new light on my own research, and this was no exception. I spoke of the challenges facing the Charity Commission, in terms of the increased scrutiny and criticism of its performance while it faces unprecedented budgetary constraints. From the United States we learned of the so-called 501(c)(4) scandal, in which the Internal Revenue Service targeted political groups for additional scrutiny based on key words in their names, such as Tea Party and patriot. After congressional hearings and investigations, streamlined processes for the granting of tax-exempt status mean that the role of the IRS in overseeing tax-exempt organisations is diminished.

We also learned of the complexities of fragmented regulation in the US as a result of both federal and state intervention. The challenges of developing regulatory regimes in Asia, Australia and at a European level were also discussed; and from the Canadian perspective, we questioned whether charity can be regulated from the vantage point of liberal neutrality.

The case of the IRS reminds us that any accusation of political interference will always end badly for a charity regulator. The fragmented oversight of non-profit organisations in the US might also be relevant for fundraising regulation in the UK. We can compare recent attempts in this country to chill the political voice of charities with the position in parts of Asia, where state suspicion of civil society has led to strengthened and reshaped oversight, sometimes in the hands of the security authorities. From Australia, we learned that deregulation arguments were used to support the establishment of the new charity regulator in that country - and, later, its abolition. Travel certainly broadens the mind.

The papers from the symposium will be published in the Chicago-Kent Law Review.

Debra Morris is professor of charity law and policy at the University of Liverpool

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