Rob Wilson: The flow of money has become too important for some

Former charities minister Rob Wilson was critical of Oxfam and other big charities before the recent scandal. In an exclusive article for Third Sector, he explains what they keep getting wrong

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

Sadly, the charity sector is going through a difficult time again, and only a relatively short time after the fundraising scandal.

As with fundraising, this is another self-inflicted wound, with the errors of judgement and poor management at a few big charities affecting the many across a whole sector. To all those hard-working members of staff and volunteers, who have nothing to do with the big international aid charities, it is bewildering and unfair. Their reputations are being unjustly stained by the leadership failures of others who became too big for their boots.

I felt after the fundraising scandal that the big charities and some of the key leaders in the sector still didn’t get what was wrong with what they had done in targeting the elderly and vulnerable as donors and selling on data. Publicly, many felt compelled to make the right noises, but privately a significant number fumed about the injustice of having to change to a new fundraising system. The fundraising scandal, like the international aid humiliation, is firmly laid at the door of a smallish number of big charities. The majority of charities are great organisations doing inspiring work – something that is too easily forgotten.

But therein lies the problem. A surprising number of these big charities feel that their good work sets them above criticism and above full transparency and accountability. They are preoccupied with their public image and automatically hostile to anything that might affect the relationship with their donors. It is easy to understand why big charities have fallen into the trap of thinking they should largely be immune to criticism – in their view it gets in the way of all the good they are trying to do. Keeping the flow of money coming in has become more important in some charities, such as those involved in international aid, than the welfare of staff and the service to benefactors. They have become corporate machines when it comes to money.

Big charities need to take a long, hard look at themselves: many of their problems are cultural and not systemic throughout a very diverse sector

Rob Wilson

These issues are not particularly new; they are long-standing cultural issues for big charities that have never been sufficiently discussed and debated. There is now a pressing need for these issues to be called out and challenged.

I know that saying these things will cause some to explode with rage, but they need to be said and publicly acknowledged and debated so that things can get on track. And, yes, I do understand and agree that many other public and private organisations are just as preoccupied as big charities with protecting their image, even to the point of covering up terrible mistakes. The fact that others are as bad or worse in some cases is not an excuse. The difference is that charities must have higher ethical standards than other organisations to retain the goodwill and trust of the public.

Decline will be rapid

We cannot keep revisiting huge charity scandals every couple of years, because eventually the capacity to recover will diminish and the speed of decline will become ever more rapid. The actions of a few could bring down many organisations.

Big charities need to take a long, hard look at themselves: many of their problems are cultural and not systemic throughout a very diverse sector. Trustees have an important role and must insist on the openness and accountability of their charity, holding the leadership fully to account. Chief executives must stop fearing criticism that might lose donors, embrace it and be first to highlight things that have gone wrong. It is better for big charities to take the initiative than to hide behind bland PR statements. At the same time, I think it is important to take on some of the dafter accusations made against charities – that they should not be employing staff and paying salaries, for example. The sector does need to stick up for itself more when the criticisms are grossly unfair.

Oxfam banner

The moderate and sensible National Council for Voluntary Organisations could do so, but many other bodies want their say too, including the large charities
themselves. Very quickly there arises a cacophony of voices, putting across diverging views, that drowns out any cut-through. When a sector faces such significant challenges, it needs a single recognised voice and spokesperson putting its case across to the wider public. It needs someone who is robust but sensible to put the case for charities on a range of issues. To be clear, I definitely do not mean defending the indefensible actions we have seen in the most recent scandal – that would merely perpetuate the wrong culture and encourage further criticism. But not having a single strong voice is a mistake and a terrible one at a crucial time for the whole sector.

When a sector faces such significant challenges, it needs a single recognised voice and spokesperson putting its case across to the wider publ

Rob Wilson

The second immediate and associated challenge is the regulator, the Charity Commission. It is more important than ever for the sector and needs to be playing its part in giving confidence to the public by being active in rooting out problems and providing good advice and support. The commission is not the enemy, but it is extremely unfortunate timing that its leadership has had to change mid-crisis and that Baroness Stowell’s position as chair has been seriously undermined by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s decision to object to her appointment. I do not criticise the committee’s decision because it had an important job to do, but it makes Stowell’s role at the commission much more difficult. Despite the committee and sector worries, she will be an effective chair and people should get behind her.

Stabilisation

William Shawcross became chair of the commission at a low point and did a
fantastic job in, first, stabilising the regulator, then energising it, although I concede that some people in the sector will take a different view. The end result of his five-year term is a more effective and robust regulator. It will be a challenge for the commission to remain as robust in its beefed up regulatory role without the active support of the sector. I suspect that it will be in for a period of unhelpful instability if people do not accept that Stowell is here to stay. If so, it would be another example of the sector shooting itself in the foot, because this sort of division helps no one.

The government still has a big role to play and there are extremely important issues that it must put real energy behind. A new dynamism needs to be injected into government thinking and policy to move a partnership with the third sector forward conclusively. There will be significant work for government to do over the next few years in terms of supporting substantial restructuring and change. I will write further about this the next time.

Rob Wilson was the Minister for Civil Society between 2014 and 2017

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