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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-commission-strategy-2018-2023/charity-commission-statement-of-strategic-intent-2018-2023
When charity thrives, everyone benefits: the millions of people in every community who give to and benefit from charity at home; the millions more beyond our shores who are helped through our global charities; but above all our country. Put simply we are stronger and better as a country the more benefit charity delivers.
The charity sector is in robust health. There are some 168,000 registered charities in England and Wales 1. Together they attracted an annual income of £76.7 billion in the past year 2. More than 11 million people in England and Wales volunteer at least once a month,3 including around 700,000 trustees of registered charities 4. Moreover, the demands on charities are growing. Many are providing essential services in tough times, often intervening where governments can’t or won’t to help some of our society’s and the world’s most vulnerable people. While the idea behind charity is still simple - acts of giving or helping – modern charity can often be complex and innovative.
Yet when it comes to trust and confidence, the challenges facing charity are considerable. The Charity Commission has been tracking 5 public trust in the charitable sector for more than a decade and it has drifted lower in recent years to where it now stands: at the lowest level since our monitoring began. Some of this has been the result of high profile cases drawing attention to systemic shortcomings and failures. But there are also issues affecting trust and confidence which are a product of the times we are living in and these too need to be recognised.
Public scepticism about institutions is not going to go away and charities must adapt. Good works rely on goodwill. Without the time and money given by the public and their tacit support for financial privileges, charity would be impossible. Goodwill in turn rests on an expectation that charities will do the right thing. Public confidence is a precious commodity. Every organisation which enjoys the privilege of being a charity has the reciprocal obligation to protect and nurture public trust for the sake of everyone. The benefit of charity to people and society is a precious asset we can’t afford to risk - and it has the potential to do much more. That is why the public’s demand for high standards of behaviour from charity - evidenced by the Commission’s own research 6 - needs to be understood and taken seriously. It is the role of the Charity Commission to see that it is.
What we stand for
The Charity Commission was established by Act of Parliament and is charged with statutory objectives 7 against which we must deliver – including the obligation to increase public trust and confidence. Our purpose, though, is more than the sum of our legal obligations.
Regulation is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself.
To command the public’s confidence and to satisfy Parliament that we are discharging our responsibilities, the Commission has to demonstrate that its purpose is relevant to people’s lives. That is why we are articulating our role differently: setting out here what we stand for and where we want to get to as a regulator over the next five years. Whether it is the public we serve, the staff we employ, the charities we regulate or the Parliament we answer to, all need to know what we are trying to achieve and to what end.
‘Our purpose is to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society.’
This purpose will inform everything the Charity Commission does. To be the effective regulator that the public demands and the sector requires, the Commission must do all it can to ensure that charities show they are being true to their own purposes, can demonstrate the difference they’re making, and meet the high expectations demanded by the public. All charities are custodians of what it means to be a charity in the eyes of the public and so are we.
There is a further challenge: to demonstrate that our approach is delivering greater benefit to the public. It is sometimes easy to forget that no one watches regulated activity as closely as those who are being regulated or doing the regulating. The rest of the population have their own priorities and opinions that often differ from one another.
We know from our own research, however, that they are united by one thing when it comes to charities: the public has high expectations of charities’ conduct and behaviour because of the importance of the work they do and the vulnerability of some of their beneficiaries. Charities need to demonstrate to the public that they can be trusted.
There is also a strong desire for charities to demonstrate that they make a real difference. For some people, it is about the opportunity to join together and contribute to their communities. For others it is about standing up for the most vulnerable. These are among the outcomes that would demonstrate to the public that the Charity Commission and the sector it regulates were delivering greater benefit.
Our strategic objectives
It is one thing to say what we stand for; it is another to translate our purpose into the day-to-day operations of a regulator. How we regulate should reflect why we regulate. We have therefore set out five strategic objectives, together with examples of how we intend to develop over the next five years. They are designed to show the kind of regulator we are working to become. Some of what we do will be new and different; some of what we do now, we will do differently.
In some areas our strategic ambition is greater than our current capacity to deliver. That is deliberate. We will only be able to make the case for the right resources and powers if we can demonstrate to Parliament and the charitable sector our vision for the future and our willingness to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Holding charities to account
Making sure that charities live up to their purpose and the high expectations of the public is about more than just compliance with the minimum legal requirements: it means being accountable for the privilege of charitable status and the stewardship of charitable resources. Individual charities are custodians of something bigger than themselves. We will use our authority and influence as the regulator to draw attention to behaviour that could jeopardise public confidence in the sector as a whole.
We focus much of our work on compliance with the law – which is right, but to the public that can sometimes feel like we are missing the point. It is only within the legal framework that we can use our regulatory powers of protection and sanction. But we also have a leadership role and responsibility, and a powerful voice. In future we will highlight the responsibility that charities and trustees bear to pay attention to how they meet their purpose not just that they do. We will use our voice more strongly to encourage the behaviour that people expect of charities.
Dealing with wrongdoing and harm
To anticipate when things are likely to go wrong in a charity, or deal effectively with wrongdoing when it has occurred, requires good information and analysis. That in turn means equipping charities with the tools they need to protect themselves against abuse or mismanagement and, where these prove insufficient, interventions that are objective and timely. Anyone who has serious concerns about the way a charity is being run should feel able to report these to the Charity Commission, confident that their concerns will be heard.
Our investigations are thorough and in-depth, but this means they can be slow to conclude. We are already working to become less reactive to events, and more driven by risk. During the next five years, we will make better use of technology to handle more cases and conclude straightforward enforcement cases more swiftly. We will also make sure that no complaint is ignored. All complaints will contribute to our trend data even where no regulatory action is taken. This will help us to be more proactive, intervening at an earlier stage and preventing harm across the sector.
Informing public choice
Charities need to elicit the public’s generosity to succeed. This means giving people the information they need to make informed decisions about where and how to support charity. As the regulator, it is the Charity Commission’s responsibility to make sure that charities offer accurate, up-to-date and relevant information about themselves. This information should be easy to access and use. It should allow charities to demonstrate how effective and efficient they are and the difference they are making. It should also help to identify gaps or duplicated effort in charitable provision which might suggest new enterprises, partnerships or mergers.
Today, we collect and display basic data about charities. The public and other stakeholders can check that a charity is registered, but our data isn’t easy to access, share or compare with other datasets. We will use our data and our expertise to make it easier for the public to find the information that matters to them, to assess charities and the difference they make. We are committed to making sure our data is truly open.
Giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed
Effective regulation should involve offering guidance and support so that charities can maximise their collective impact. This includes the Charity Commission offering advice to trustees or giving them authority to act in appropriate circumstances. It might involve encouraging charities operating in similar spheres to collaborate, or even to merge, if this would increase the public benefit. It is sometimes about facilitating and communicating good practice. Our goal as a regulator is to help charities to fulfil the purposes for which they were created by working with them as well as monitoring them.
Currently, our guidance is aimed at all charities and limited mostly to describing the things charities should not do. To help trustees get things right before they go wrong and increase the difference they can make, we will need to target more of our guidance to fit with different charities’ needs. This should allow us to concentrate our regulatory interventions where the risks are highest and the interventions most needed.
Keeping charity relevant for today’s world
Registered charities must take account of how society is changing and the forces driving these changes. It is part of the Charity Commission’s job as regulator to understand the wider context in which charities work. We will lead thinking about how charities can thrive in a changing world, helping to shape and update the environment in which they operate and the wider debate on their future activities.
The Charity Commission currently has limited capacity to engage in influencing government policy or stimulating public debate about charity. Over the next five years we will aim to shape the agenda. We will speak confidently and authoritatively across government, in Parliament and on charity matters as the expert regulator, informed by our experience and our data, with the intention of supporting a stronger charity sector.
Over the next five years
The Charity Commission will only succeed over the next five years by providing effective regulation with a purpose: to ensure that those we regulate are able to inspire even greater levels of public trust and confidence. For the public to have that greater confidence, their concerns must be understood and taken seriously, and the benefits of good regulation must be apparent in people’s lives.
We cannot, however, succeed on our own. We need to work in partnership with others and draw on their expertise. As we determine how best to deliver our strategic objectives, we will do so in conversation with the charity sector, government and others. For charities to thrive and inspire public trust, we need co-operation from trustees, charities and bodies across the sector. For us to command confidence from our stakeholders, we will need to demonstrate our own openness and accountability.
Delivering the ambitions we have set out will mean changing the way we work. Our staff must think differently about the way they carry out their roles to ensure we are fulfilling our purpose. We do not have all the resources necessary to fulfil these ambitions, but that cannot be an excuse for us to wait.
We must start the journey now, which is what this strategy is all about: maximising the benefit of charity to the public by serving the public better. This is both the collective responsibility and the collective prize which we share with those we regulate.