Speech

On 24 June 2015, William Shawcross addressed the Princess Royal's Charities Forum at Buckingham Palace.

Charity Commission Chairman William Shawcross, speaking at the Princess Royal Charities Forum on 24 June 2015.

Your Royal Highness, delegates,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to play some small part in this happy event.

Today brings together two great British traditions: charity and royalty.

They have much in common.

Both are ancient, both have survived and flourished over countless centuries. Both have shown continuity and change in almost equal measure, telling an important truth about our national heritage: it is strong, because it is alive.

And of course, as today’s event reminds us, the links are also very personal.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal is president or patron to around 300 charities – an extraordinary commitment.

In devoting so much of her time, energy and intellect to the service of charity, she follows in a proud tradition, and in the footsteps of her mother, her grandmother – and beyond.

As you may know, a few years ago, I had the great honour of writing the official biography of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Studying the life of one member of the Royal Family helped me understand how deep the commitment to charity runs within the entire family.

One of the Queen Mother’s favourites was the local Sandringham branch of the Women’s Institute. She served as president for a remarkable 65 years. In 1954, she made an especially moving address at the charity after the East Coast was hit by devastating floods.

The Queen Mother spoke of the help the WI had given those in need and how encouraged she was to realise that “when disaster strikes, self is forgotten and the uplifting thought ‘love thy neighbour’ is uppermost in people’s minds”. I think that these words sum up what motivates many members of the Royal Family to be involved in charity.

If you are interested in the links between monarchy and charity, I can recommend a wonderful book. Royal Bounty, The making of a Welfare Monarchy by Frank Prochaska charts the Royal Family’s commitment to charity back to George III.

It is a scholarly but also engaging study and, like most good histories, it tells a bigger story about the nation – about our attitudes to charity, to the state and to our local communities. I highly recommend it.

Amongst other things, Prochaska shows the tension that exists today between the traditional ideas and inspirations of charity – “Christian love” or “kindness” – and the more modern, secular, collectivist world in which we live. For example, the 2006 Charity Act, under which the Commission operates –defined charity as “public benefit”. Prochaska says that this term reflects a government agenda “which seeks to offer a concordat with its junior partners in the voluntary sector.”

The scale and breadth of charity

Nonetheless, this event today reminds us quite how vibrant the world of charity is: the charities in this room represent a tiny fraction of charities on the Charity Commission’s register – there are more than 164,000 in total. And yet you display an inspiring range and diversity.

Over 40% of the charities we regulate have annual incomes of less than £10,000. In other words, they are tiny, volunteer-run groups. They often have small but hugely valuable roles: looking after a local village hall or playing field, for example, or running the local scout group.

On the other end of the spectrum, we regulate some of the largest aid organisations in the world – complex, international operations, like Save The Children, which make a practical difference to the lives of innumerable people around the world, often under very difficult conditions, such as conflict zones. Charity is also truly democratic: there are more than one million charity trustees and nearly four times as many regular volunteers in England and Wales.

There is, happily, little sign that this charitable instinct is abating: each year, we register between 4,000 and 5,000 new charities.

This is a precious and rich heritage.

And it is the Charity Commission’s role to protect it, by promoting continued public trust and confidence in charities.

The work of the Charity Commission

I have been asked to talk to you about our work, about what we do for you as charities, and what we expect from charities in turn.

And as I’ve been told that I may be controversial, I will start by saying this:

I do not measure the Commission’s success by our popularity among charities.

But I am confident that our work does serve charities’ interests.

Our purpose is not to champion or defend you.

We are here for the public. Indeed we have a legal duty “to increase public trust and confidence” in the charitable world.

My board and I feel that the best way for us to do that is by being a robust, rigorous regulator, able to root out wrong doing and uphold the definition of charity.

Next week, we will launch our new strategic plan. It will cite protecting charities from abuse or mismanagement as one of our four main aims for the next three years.

Does this mean we will be a Stasi-like regulator whose menacing tentacles reach out to judge and inspect every well-meaning trustee in the country?

Certainly not.

For one thing, we don’t have the resources to be that kind of regulator.

And even if we did, I wouldn’t allow the Commission to forget that it regulates volunteers.

But we do know that one case of wrong-doing in one charity can undermine trust in all charities.

So we are becoming a risk-based regulator.

That means we will focus our resources where they are needed most and make the biggest impact.

By definition, a risk-based approach means that we will be proportionate, and leave the majority of good charities in peace to do their work.

I am often asked whether the Commission’s new focus means we will stop providing guidance to charities.

The answer is No.

We understand that trustees, who are volunteers and already have busy work and family commitments, can’t all be expected to know charity law inside out. So we will continue to provide online guidance, which explains trustee duties and responsibilities in a way that a layman can understand.

I believe our guidance is getting a great deal better.

Please look out up our core guidance The essential trustee.

This is the one piece of guidance that applies to all trustees, of all charities, at all times.

We will be publishing the updated version soon. We have put a lot of work into making it as clear as possible.

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I won’t pretend that the Commission can keep doing all of the things we once did.

We have very little money. In real terms our budget is about half what it was in 2007. We now run on about £21 million a year and, like all government departments, risk further cuts.

This means that we simply cannot provide the one-to-one advice to individual charities that we once did.

I realise that this is difficult for many trustees, especially those of smaller charities.

But I do think that it is ultimately right that we focus on what we must do – regulation – and encourage other, more qualified organisations, to provide advice services to charities.

I said earlier that I don’t measure the Commission’s success by our popularity among charities.

I believe that is right.

But new research, which we will publish tomorrow, suggests that charities agree we are taking the right approach.

The research shows that the majority of the public (72%) and a similar proportion of charities (75%) believe that charities are regulated effectively. Over 90% of charities support new powers being introduced through the Charities Bill currently before Parliament.

Conclusion

I hope I have explained the Commission’s regulatory approach to you and that you are reassured that we are on the right course.

We must remember that we live in an age of increasing public expectation, and of instant communication. The recent debate about fundraising following the sad death of Olive Cooke tells us how quickly and deeply concerns about charities can resonate among the public.

So run your charity in such a way as to protect its reputation at all times. This does not mean pandering to the tabloids or being timid and over-cautious. It simply means making sound decisions that are not only in line with charity law but also with the expectations of kindness that people still have of charity. And it means showing accountability and openness to the public you serve. Explaining yourself, building trust.

As we enter Ramadan, a period when charitable giving by Muslims takes on heightened significance, the responsibilities incumbent upon donors, trustees and the Commission to maintain public confidence are brought into relief. We must all strive to ensure that genuine charitable causes are supported and that funds, honourably given, are not dishonourably used. Generous Muslims donate millions of pounds at this time.

Without such watchfulness, charities at home and abroad will face continued and increasing challenges. There are many threats to the safe delivery of aid to those now living in war torn areas of the Middle East, including that posed by extremist groups. By seeking to channel funds donated in good faith in this country, such extremists, such as Islamic extremists, also threaten to undermine confidence in charities and cast a shadow over the peaceful majority of Muslims.

William Beveridge is best known today as the creator of the welfare state. But he was a profound man who never wanted government welfare to replace individual philanthropy. He wrote in 1948, the year the NHS was created, “the making of a good society depends not on the State, but on citizens, acting individually or in free association with one another, acting on motives of various kilns – some selfish, some unselfish, some narrow and material, others inspired by love of man and love of God.”

Charity, like monarchy, softens the apparatus of the state; both give the state a human face. One Mass Observation Survey in the mid-1960s showed that people felt the Crown was a “bulwark” against government encroachment on freedoms. I suggest that is even more true today.

The Queen herself has often hailed the power of individual charity, particularly in her Christmas addresses. In 1991, just after the Berlin Wall and communism collapsed, she spoke of the power of voluntary organisations such as you all represent. Democracy, she said, “depends not on political structures but on the goodwill and the sense of responsibility of each and every citizen.”

I think the Charity Commission has a vital role in protecting charity for the future.

The word charity derives from the Latin “caritas” – meaning care, which Thomas Aquinas called “the most excellent of the virtues.” It is to preserve and enhance that excellence, which is represented by both the Princess Royal and by all charities here today, that the Charity Commission exists.

Thank you.