Regulator's focus on serving the public interest 'not a passing fashion', its chief executive says

Helen Stephenson says the Charity Commission's core purpose remains putting the public at the heart of everything it does

Helen Stephenson
Helen Stephenson

The chief executive of the Charity Commission has warned the sector that the regulator's focus on serving the public interest is not just “a passing fashion”.

Helen Stephenson, who was speaking yesterday at an online conference held by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, described the regulator as the primary guardian of the relationship between the public and charitable institutions.

“Some in the sector may have hoped the commission’s explicit, and vocal focus on serving the public interest was just a passing fashion,” she said. “Far from it.”

Earlier she said the regulator existed because society recognised the importance of protecting the legitimacy and status of charity in the minds of the public.

Stephenson said it was the regulator’s job to safeguard what was, in essence, a covenant between the public, charities and the state. 

“A covenant founded on a bond of trust which is why parliament set us the statutory objective to increase – not maintain, but to increase – public trust and confidence in charity.

“But it is even more vital that we protect it now, in the 21st century, as people’s deference for institutions and authorities has given way to scepticism, scrutiny and the expectation of transparency.

“The commission has adapted to this age of scrutiny in the way we regulate, to protect the legitimacy of charity into the future, and for the next generation.”

Stephenson acknowledged that the regulator’s work had been challenged by the pandemic, but its core purpose remained putting the public at the heart of everything it did. 

“Whatever is thrown at us, or at the charities we regulate, in the months ahead, we will not divert from that fundamental principle,” she said. 

The regulator would continue to take charities that broke this covenant to task, said Stephenson.

“And [this is] why we call out behaviour which, while not a technical breach of the law, goes against the reasonable expectations of the public that charities should behave differently from private or commercial entities.

“It’s the reason we must meet every concern that is raised with us about a charity with respect, regardless of the worldview that informs or motivates it. Not all complaints will lead to regulatory action from us, but every single one is heard, and taken seriously.”

Stephenson said the regulator would work to not only hold charities to account when things go wrong, but also help them realise a greater impact for the good of society.

She concluded with a challenge to finance professionals to help charities find ways of reporting authentically and meaningfully on the impact they made.

She said they needed to help ensure charities prepared clear, accurate, and compelling accounts and took prudent decisions that made the most of the funds and assets at their disposal.

“You too, as finance professionals, need to play your part in helping charities to do better and to be better,” said Stephenson.

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