Sarah Atkinson, head of the Charity Commission's corporate affairs division

In a series on the regulator's senior staff, Atkinson talks to Paul Jump about getting the commission's message across

"If people don't know about something, it effectively hasn't happened," says Sarah Atkinson, with a metaphysical boldness that many a philosopher would envy.

As the Charity Commission's head of corporate affairs, communicating the regulator's message to the wider world is very much on her agenda. Created after the commission's 2005 strategic review, the role involves overseeing the regulator's external relationships and reputation management.

In practice, this gives her responsibility for the press office and the teams that organise external forums and meetings. She also works across the commission to make sure its publications communicate "in a way that is accessible to every kind of trustee".

Atkinson joined the commission from the Nationwide Building Society, where she was head of public affairs. But she has also been a trustee of international women's rights charity Womankind Worldwide for nine years. She describes her role as "brilliant and exhausting"; the media side of her responsibilities is particularly relentless. "But it is the way I like it," she says.

Her expertise in reputation management was useful during the summer, when several newspaper columnists accused the commission of political bias in the wake of its verdict that two of the fee-charging schools it assessed did not deliver enough public benefit.

Atkinson admits the allegations affected the commission's staff. "But we just have to work harder to make sure people understand better the next time," she adds. "We have had lots of feedback from charities saying our public benefit guidance is useful. That is a good reminder of what we are here for."

The commission will not shy away from expressing its views on politically sensitive topics in future, she says. "Being independent doesn't mean being aloof or distant. We actively engage in public and political debate and, based on our own knowledge, we call it as we see it."

But she says the commission has work to do in the run-up to the next election in terms of educating individual charities about the distance they must maintain from party politics, pointing to recent "fundamental mistakes" such as giving donations to or doing research for political parties.

These were highlighted in regulatory case reports, which Atkinson was involved in devising as a way of communicating the lessons of case work that does not result in formal reports.

She admits she still has a big job to do and that there is sometimes resistance within the commission to her ideas, but she says that goes with the territory. "Everybody is busy and wants to get on with their job," she says. "But there is a huge commitment within the commission to getting it right and being seen to get it right. I take a lot of heart from that."

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