Stephen Hale: The Charity Commission has a plan. What's ours?

Much of the commission's new strategy can and should be delivered by the sector itself

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

Something important just happened. It’s basically good. The Charity Commission has a brand new chair and, as a result, a brand new strategy for the next five years. In my view it’s a good one. But about half of it can be far better delivered by charities themselves. We should rise to the challenge, not wait for our regulator to do things to us.

The new chair is of course Baroness Tina Stowell, who has spent much of her career in the Conservative Party and served in David Cameron’s Cabinet. The new plan is clearly very much shaped by her, centred on the need to restore what she sees as a crisis in public trust in charities. Obviously there’s a certain irony in a former politician lecturing the sector on low levels of public trust. But it doesn’t matter. The commission’s new strategy must be judged on its merits.

Let’s start with the commission’s new purpose: "To ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society." There’s lots to like about this. It’s positive and ambitious about our vital role, unlike some recent commission messaging. It also rightly focuses on people and our role in empowering people and society, not simply on the health of the sector itself. At a time of such uncertainty and insecurity, and with growing levels of social need and environmental degradation, it’s just the kind of positive and ambitious vision that our sector needs.

This purpose is followed by five strategic objectives. I won’t list them all. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has summarised them here. In a nutshell, it’s a pretty good framework. If all five objectives were rapidly put into practice by the right people, it would unquestionably enhance trust and, indeed, the impact of charities in the UK, which is what matters.

But here’s the rub. Can, and indeed should, the Charity Commission design and deliver plans for all these objectives? Obviously it currently lacks the resources for much of this. But more importantly, in my view, about half of these ambitions can be successfully delivered only by the voluntary sector.

Holding charities to account and dealing with wrongdoing and harm are the first two objectives. Goodness knows, we need a regulator for this. There are very few scoundrels in the charity world, but there are a few and our regulator needs to take them to task. This is why we have a regulator. Baroness Stowell rightly wants it to do better. As Third Sector editor Andy Hillier set set out last week, it's currently struggling to deliver on these objectives with its existing resources.

Yet these are just two of the five strategic objectives now envisaged by the commission. I like the other three, but it seems to me that they can be delivered only by the sector. "Giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed" is a role already played by organisations such as Acevo, Navca and very many others. At Refugee Action our good practice and partnerships team is working with about 100 charities in our sector.

As part of this objective, the commission’s strategy urges charities to work together. I have argued previously that we’re at the foothills of what we could achieve through deep collaboration. But this is a task we should embrace ourselves, rather than wait for a regulator to intervene.

The fifth and final objective, "keeping charity relevant for today’s world", is even more clearly a challenge that we as leaders must own if we do not already. The commission aspires here to "lead thinking about how charities can thrive". Let’s redouble our efforts to improve our analysis and strengthen our vision and the creativity of what we do.

I’m glad Baroness Stowell now leads the Charity Commission. The new strategic framework has much to welcome, and there are some very useful things that a well-connected commission chair could do right now. Competitive tendering drives charities apart and towards the business-like behaviours of which she was so critical. The role of charities in creating a strong society is not understood or respected across government. A few words in the rights ears, if heeded, could do much to address the issues she raises.

But in my view the most important thing about the commission’s new aspirations is the challenge it poses to us all, and above to sector leadership bodies such as the NCVO. This is the commission’s plan for the sector. In August the government launched its plan for the sector. What’s ours? Over the next few years we can and must grow public trust, spread good practice faster, maximise our influence over relevant government policies and, through all this, enhance the incredible contribution we make to communities and public life in the UK. All this depends on our leadership, not our regulator. Let’s get to work.

Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action

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