Don’t take public trust for granted, commission chair warns charities

17 Apr 18

Charities can no longer expect the public to give them the benefit of the doubt, new Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell warned in her first major speech in the role.

Charities’ reputations have taken a hit following the sexual misconduct allegations about Oxfam’s work in Haiti. Since then, other charities have admitted to problems.

“People now trust charities no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street,” Stowell told delegates at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference in London yesterday.

“It is vital, in my view, that we understand why that is the case – and work together to change what’s gone wrong so we can put it right.”

She noted that increased public scrutiny of charities was part of a wider trend and noted parallel declines in trust in other institutions, such as politics and big business.

“People clearly are less trusting of institutions and of those in positions of authority than they once were,” she said.

Charities could no longer be “innocent bystanders”, Stowell said, and needed to demonstrate greater transparency.

“But, again, we need to really understand why they are asking for this.”

Setting out the Charity Commission’s role in this area, Stowell said the watchdog was reviewing its strategy.

She added that the regulator needed to understand and articulate the public interest in charity.

“This is about more than careful and faithful application of charity law. It’s about setting the bar that we believe charities can be expected to reach based on what we know about the factors that drive trust,” she told NCVO delegates.

“This is because the commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public but to represent the public interest to you.”

As well as stepping in to investigate when there were serious concerns about a charity, she said the watchdog also needed to ensure “things stay right”.

The commission is set to publish its new strategic plan in the summer and, in the meantime, Stowell said she would be doing a lot of listening.

The watchdog, she said, was neither adversary nor “cosy friend” of the sector, but a partner – “your partner in a shared, vital mission to rebuild public trust in what charity does and has the real potential to help our society achieve”.

Stowell was confirmed as Charity Commission chair in February, replacing William Shawcross. Her appointment was not without controversy, as MPs and sector bodies raised concerns about her lack of experience in the sector and suitability for the role.

Stowell was Conservative leader of the House of Lords until July 2016. She resigned from the party membership and the Conservative whip so she could take up the position with the regulator.

Read Neil Merrick’s investigation in charities and transparency here.

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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