"Charities must behave like charities" declared the chair of the Charity Commission in her speech setting out a new strategic direction for the regulator.
Bold words from Baroness Stowell, but what do they mean? And is it really possible for charities to meet public expectations when many are simply struggling to survive?
Public perceptions of how charities should behave and the everyday reality have been out of step for a long time. For some charities are, or should be, a sector of well-intentioned individuals focused almost entirely on delivering services for little or no pay. In reality, although some staff do focus on the challenges of supporting the vulnerable or creating change, many have to get to grips with a wide range of back-office tasks just to keep the charity afloat.
In particular, it is the relentless search for sustainable funding that absorbs much time and energy. The richest charities are not necessarily those providing the most-needed or highest-quality services, leaving many excellent smaller organisations in a continual struggle to make ends meet.
This tough funding situation is made even more difficult by the requirements and practices of some funders and commissioners.
The funding applications or tender documents can seem overly complex and the deadlines incredibly tight. Some funders seem to be interested only in shiny, brand-new projects that promise innovative solutions to problems.
In fact, a lot of very good valuable charity work does not require innovation. We have services and ideas that work perfectly well. What we need is long-term sustainable funding to keep them going. Charities can find themselves having to either reshape or dress up existing work as new and innovative or risk losing financial support for vital services.
Then there are the difficulties of finding money for core costs. Too many funders and commissioners want to finance only specific projects and provide minimal if any contribution to central office costs.
This leaves charities scrabbling for unreserved funding to pay for administrative expenses. To help cover these funding gaps, more organisations are focusing on setting up social enterprises and income-generating business. But these initiatives take time and skills that are in very short supply.
This is the environment in which many charities work and the pressures that shape charity behaviour. Charities are constantly nervous about losing income and the smaller ones especially can find themselves pressuring staff to deliver instead of having honest conversations with funders and commissioners about how they can work together more effectively.
Too many charity staff and volunteers are overstretched, under-resourced, often poorly supported and trained. Is it any wonder they cut corners, become forgetful and make mistakes?
Clearly there is room for charities to improve, but if we are serious about behaviour change we cannot do it in isolation. We need to look at the wider environment and how charities are financed.
We also need to consider how we partner with funders and commissioners, because their working practices have a huge effect on how we work.
Above all, we need to develop healthy, trust-based relationships with them, because if we really want to change, we need our funders onside.
Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator