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Garry Jones's Blog

Wed 30 Oct 2019

Trust in Charities and why the Charity Commission is so off the mark

In recent weeks there has been another raft of critical opinion from the Charity Commission, largely via its Chair, Baroness Tina Stowell. It hopefully passed you by and doesn’t affect your opinion of charities or indeed your own organisational self-esteem too much. To expand on my Twitter comments @suschief I want to say a few words here about why this is a poor strategy by the Commission, poor execution and totally misses the mark.

This repeated commentary largely relies on this 2018 Commission report.  If you have time to read it, you will actually see that trust in charities has gone up since 2016 and that charities remain one of the most trusted of any institutions; though overall trust is seen to be down in the longer term and remains of concern to the public, mostly linked to negative media and publicity about charities in recent years (something the Commission seems intent on contributing too?!?)

I have to say there are serious questions as to the method and statistical significance of the results in this report. If this is to be the basis of what seems to be their flagship ‘campaign’ then it needs to be a much broader and sounder (and independent) evidence base of the supposed problem. At this juncture I would also remind readers that Baroness Stowell isn’t the independent regulator she is supposed to be, walking straight out of the revolving door from being a Conservative Peer and former Cabinet Member into this job, against the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee asked to endorse her. Indeed they stated she wasn’t fit for the job… she was given it anyway.

So, where exactly is the supposed trust problem? If we accept there is an issue, or at least that further building up of trust in charities is good, whatever its current status; surely there are two obvious next questions: which of the 160,000 charities are and are not trusted, and why? Are there significant differences based on geography, theme or size of charity? I strongly suspect so and certainly the negative media ‘scandals’ have been overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of large corporate national charities. But analytically, what are the main reasons people give for trusting or not trusting charities? I see little of this analysis and in particular, it practically never seems to provide any direction to the Commission Chair’s public speeches on the matter. Instead she repeatedly says ‘charities’   - what all 160,000 of them?

More fundamentally though, can Trust even be regulated? The current discourse is really shallow. It doesn’t recognise that Trust is not something any of us can directly create, not charities and not the Commission. Trust is an emergent property of complex systems (people and organisations), influenced by a very wide range of factors, many of them subjective and irrational. I would argue Trust is as much, if not more, an emotion or feeling, as a thought or fact. The Commission can strongly effect some of these factors through regulation and those are the things they should concentrate on: transparency in reporting, the registration process itself, compliance with legal duties, punishment for abuse of the law etc. They have some way to go on these things!

Still, I genuinely wouldn’t mind them giving a view on our behaviours as a sector, if it were done, with us, instead of about us. The public discourse from the Commission on this is too dominated by a top down approach, telling us off and telling us to do better. Where is the attempt to work with us? Charity Leaders are by far the best placed people to influence this agenda as they are the ones who have most control over their charities’ behaviours. There seems to have been very little effort put into working with us. When I questioned this approach with the Chair, at the NAVCA AGM last year, her first response was to say ‘try not to take it personally’. For me this speaks volumes about the Commission’s relationship with the local (small) sector vs the corporate charity sector. For us lot, we work in this sector, not solely or even primarily because of a transactional employment relationship. We do it because we care and we almost all go well above and beyond. This means that telling us we are not trusted, feels personal, and if it feels personal, then it is!

This brings me to my main point, which is that this trust debate detracts from the real issue – public misunderstanding. When you do delve into the data you find massive misunderstanding shines through and surely if you are to trust something, misunderstanding it, ain’t a great place to start. Just one example of many; a large proportion of the ‘public’ think Charity Chief Executives shouldn’t be paid. Not shouldn’t be paid a lot, no, shouldn’t be paid at all. This must mean that for those people there would be something to mistrust in any charity boss who got paid even the minimum wage. The public understanding of what charity is and charities are is a very real and factual thing that the Commission absolutely could do something about, if it chose to change its ‘campaign’ to one of public education.

Finally, via Twitter, I have received a very strong counter argument against my statements that this approach is ‘unfair’. My friendly adversary argued that the Commission should be able to criticise charities and to do so very publicly and that we shouldn’t cry ‘unfair’. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I agree with him up to a point – they should criticise us where it is merited. But where I come from, if something is unfair, you can say it and you shouldn’t have to take the blame for things you didn’t do. I re-read the list of supposed charity scandals from poor fundraising practice, excessive chief exec pay, horrendous lack of safeguarding and the impacts, kids company and other high profile collapses, supposed duplication of ‘too many charities’, and charity shops proliferating on the high street. I concluded, our Charity has nothing to do with any of these and I couldn’t think of any of our member orgs locally who had either.

So yes, it’s unfair and I will keep saying so. Follow my rants and occasional insights @suschief