Trust: we need a more robust and nuanced discussion

Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO, writes in response to the Charity Commission’s latest report, ‘Regulating in the public interest’.

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It is positive that the latest Charity Commission research shows an increase in trust, echoing findings of the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer. The latest research from the Charity Commission also contains some phrases like ‘public opinion is not monolithic’ which indicates a desire to avoid criticism that it has previously received saying the way the Commission talks about trust is too generic.

However, while the report contains new caveats and the research findings are more positive, the substantive concern that many in the sector, including myself, have raised in the last two years remains: that the Charity Commission is continuing to make a case to work outside its legal remit without any actual changes to the legislation. Respondents are asked to select from two statements:

‘The charity regulator should confine its role to making sure charities stick to the letter of the laws that govern activity’

Vs

‘The charity regulator should try to make sure charities fulfil their wider responsibilities to society as well as sticking to the letter of the laws governing charitable activity.’

The survey respondents favour the latter statement, but I find the structure of the question leading and more concerningly, the report doesn’t contain any reflections on who would get to decide the ‘wider responsibilities’ to society. This raises the question of whether the Commission is positioning itself to make that kind of decision. That would be concerning as a body whose chair was appointed despite the DCMS select committee unanimously rejecting the appointment based on concerns about inexperience and political impartiality.

The report says that dismissing the Charity Commission’s findings on trust is ‘inadequate’ and ‘unwise’. I certainly do not dismiss the findings out of hand, but I do expect a more robust, nuanced discussion about the sector from our regulator.

I believe that a charity’s primary responsibility is to the people or cause it serves, those who volunteer or work with it and those who support it. In many charities these groups are mixed rather than siloed. However, as has been repeatedly said by others, the expectations of these groups will vary depending on who they are and the cause they are championing.

I add to this a frustration that there is no self-reflection in the report about the limitations or role of the Charity Commission itself. Almost exactly a year ago ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health released a report about bullying in the charity sector that contained a recommendation for the Commission to clarify its scope on responding to complaints of bullying. This recommendation was made because many of those who had experienced bullying and had reported it to the Commission were told there was nothing the Commission could do about it. However, despite promises to the contrary, the recommendation has yet to be actioned.

I don’t think anyone can accuse me or ACEVO of shying away from areas the charity sector needs to improve on. We have made public challenges around issues such as values-based leadership, bullying, equity and inclusion, and commissioning practice. The Charity Commission is not the bastion of public opinion and criticism of the Charity Commission is not akin to criticism of members of the public.

And lastly, the definition used in terms of diversity in the report is very strange. It describes diversity as “closeness to your neighbour.” From my reading of the report “high diversity” is defined as “living in cosmopolitan areas” or “living in densely populated and diverse urban areas.” Whereas “low diversity” is “living in smaller, more rural areas” or “…rural areas and small, traditional market towns.” These seem to me a gross oversimplification of the term diversity. Diversity refers to any human difference. I grew up outside a traditional market town, and while there were fewer people of colour in my town than in London (where I now live), there was diversity in terms of Disability, sexuality, age, gender and ethnicity.

Over the last three months ACEVO has worked closely with staff at the Charity Commission to respond together to the challenges that charities face due to Covid-19. There have been very helpful interventions from the Charity Commission, and many open, honest, mutually challenging conversations. I hope we can continue to work with the Charity Commission staff constructively during the pandemic and in the period afterwards so that the sector and the Commission can support each other to build back better.

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