5 February 2021

Charity’s unifying force has never been more needed – or more at risk

By Baroness Stowell

These days the levels of scrutiny we all face are immense. The speed with which we can pass judgement on others is unprecedented, as is the ability to seek out those who agree with us, often to the exclusion of anyone else. 

All of this makes outrage at scale much easier and, sometimes, the entire object of the exercise: being angry seems to be the only way to make yourself heard amongst all the noise. Of course, that approach often comes at a cost. Nuanced disagreements descend into polarised divisions, motives are impugned, guilt by association becomes the order of the day. People parody others and in so doing become parodies of themselves.

In this environment a better understanding of our differences has never been more difficult or more essential. The pandemic may have frozen all of us in place for the time being, but the places we find ourselves in reflect the fact that we are perhaps more segregated than we have been in living memory – whether by choice or by a lack of it.

Most of us have been to places and experienced things that people within living memory couldn’t even begin to comprehend. These experiences help to shape who we are, what we think, and how we feel. They are part of us. We have these things in common, but we also live alongside people who’ve had other experiences, who haven’t had the same opportunities or who’ve had different ones. And yet we have seldom had less contact with those people than at any time in the modern era. 

However far we travel when we can safely do so again, we really do need to get out more closer to home. That need to understand and respect experiences and values different from our own was important before the recent political shocks of the past five years. And I think it’s even more important now.

We have a choice. Either we acknowledge what has gone on around us, learn from it and adapt, or we ignore it as a momentary aberration, seek to learn nothing at all and just hope it won’t happen again. I think choosing the latter option would be both wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice.

A question of values

Let me explain why, drawing on my own personal experience.

Over my career I have been fortunate to work in some of Britain’s finest public institutions – from the civil service to the BBC; and I have served Prime Ministers, whether working as a member of staff inside Number 10 or as a member of the Cabinet.  In all of these roles the values that have mattered most are those that I share with the people I was born and brought up with in the East Midlands – close to what people now call Blue or Red Wall territory.

What are those values? That rules matter and should be applied equally to everyone; that people in power have a particular responsibility to lead by example; and that knowledge – while important – counts for little without understanding. These are not outlandish beliefs – they’re held by millions of decent, respectable people up and down the country – and nor are the opinions they give rise to fringe or extreme.

Ignoring these voices or losing touch with the values that underpin them, seems to me an act of monumental hubris. For too long, too many of us in positions of authority have allowed moral certitude, reinforced by over-confidence, to harden into disdain for other people’s points of view. And that in turn has led to a reluctance to be held accountable by wider public opinion.  Over the past 15 years we’ve seen the consequences of that kind of attitude: from the financial crisis, to the scandal over MPs’ expenses, and also to the loss of trust in news media.

A crisis of trust

I applied for the Chair of the Charity Commission because I could see that same erosion in public trust had begun to reach parts of the charity world too. Household names not behaving as they should; putting their own reputations ahead of doing the right thing and not recognising their broader responsibility to charity as a whole had taken its toll. By 2018, public trust and confidence in charity was at its lowest level ever.

Some organised voices opposed my appointment because of my lack of experience in the charity world. But they failed to understand that this was a feature not a bug. I wasn’t there to plead the case for charities to the public, but to make sure that a broader range of voices from the public were taken seriously by charities, especially the large and more established ones.

So, from the very start of my term as Chair, I led the board and worked with Chief Executive Helen Stephenson and the rest of the Executive team to place regulating in the public interest at the heart of the Commission’s work. We moved to reassure people that their legitimate concerns, often over quite small things, would not be trivialised or ignored. We also emphasised that charities needed to be driven by how they go about their business, not just in the difference they make. This means being respectful of basic public expectations and behaving in a way that is distinctive from other types of organisations.

I’m pleased to say, that over the last couple of years we have started to see a modest recovery in public trust and confidence in the charity sector. And it’s worth remembering that is not just a nice objective if we can achieve it, it is a statutory responsibility of the Charity Commission, written into law.

A charitable nation

As the last year has made clear, our nation’s charitable impulse runs as deep as it ever has. During the pandemic people have found new and ingenious ways to demonstrate kindness, salute courage and lend practical help to one another. From supporting the inspiring endeavours of the late Captain Sir Tom Moore – who united us when we felt so far apart last spring, and whose loss this week is mourned by us all – to being grateful to people like St John Ambulance and the RVS, who are enrolling thousands of local volunteers to help distribute vaccines in their own communities.

Indeed, many charities are having to work harder than ever, adapting to a dramatic loss of income at a time of increased demand: having to attract new supporters or find new ways of providing essential support to those with pre-existing and ongoing needs. Charities remain the most effective way of bringing people together in the name of something bigger, more important or more urgent than those things which sometimes keep us apart.

This power that charity has derives from the feeling that it belongs to all of us in one form or another, wherever we come from. That sense of genuine common ownership is rare and precious in our current world; and we should not give it up deliberately or through neglect. Charities can challenge things, charities can shake things up, they can even change the world, but they can’t, and they shouldn’t go out of their way to divide people. 

If Charity is to remain at the forefront of our national life it cannot afford to be captured by those who want to advance or defend their own view of the world to the exclusion of all others. Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends, but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight. 

Many seek out charities as an antidote to politics and division, not as another front on which to wage a war against political enemies. And they have the right to be respected too. Telling these people that they’ll get a fair hearing if they object to the politicisation of their favourite charities or if they take a different view is not in itself a political act; it is the role of a responsible regulator.

Hard as it may be to believe sometimes, away from Westminster or beyond the reach of Twitter, there are people who do not have definitive opinions, ready for instant expression about Brexit, the root causes of inequality, the exercise and limits of free speech, or how best to tell the story of Britain.

They are the backbone of so many of our charities. They let their donations, their volunteering, their fundraising do the talking. Just because these people do not shout doesn’t mean they have no right to be heard. I have tried to make their views count more during my time at the Charity Commission. And I hope and believe my successor will do the same.

Challenges ahead

They will of course inherit other challenges facing the sector and its regulator.

First, public expectations matter. When it comes to charities this means seeing motives translated into action and the job being gone about in the right way. Standards in terms of behaviour, efficiency and effectiveness are more important to people than structures, and the public feels entitled to make certain assumptions about registered charity status that go beyond recipients simply sticking to the letter of the law. And that doesn’t change even during a pandemic. 

Even as the range of bodies trying to become charities, and the scope of things we ask charities to do keeps on growing – ensuring people’s expectations are met is incredibly important if the legal and financial benefits of charitable status are to continue enjoying public support.

And then there’s the challenge of registered charity status itself keeping pace with the times. 

Charities aren’t the only outlet for people who want to be charitable. The charity sector needs to embrace a new generation of organisations with their own ideas for strengthening their communities and wider society. 

In my view the charity register should not be like a private members’ club; difficult to join but offering a place for life once you get in. Instead it should be a snapshot that captures the vast array of efforts being made in this country to improve lives and strengthen society at any given time.  The Charity Commission would be better equipped to do this if it could make registration more straightforward in some cases, whilst at the same time, have more power and greater freedom to remove from the register moribund charities or those involved in wrongdoing.

And finally, there’s what to do when things do go wrong. The reason the Charity Commission has placed such importance on the public interest during my time as Chair is that the way charities go about their business matters as much as the difference that they make. How do we know this? Because the public tells us so.

It’s important to be able to draw broader lessons from cases, where appropriate, to show that there is an underlying purpose to how the Commission discharges its statutory responsibilities. We began to do this while I was Chair and I hope that it continues.

More people are becoming aware of what the Charity Commission is trying to do on their behalf. And that can only help charities, who need all the support they can get to recover from the pandemic, and to play their full part in helping the country to do the same.

Charities come in all shapes and sizes; large and small, volunteer-led and professionally run, service-providers funded by local and national government, and the essential but often unglamorous gap-fillers fiercely independent of the state. Some find this lack of coherence frustrating. They would like a much more focused, organised and coordinated sector speaking to the government and the outside world with one voice, usually their own.

But looking back with the advantage of my three years at the Charity Commission I think it is that very variation which is the source of the charity sector’s strength. There are charities which bring like-minded people together; charities who unite unlike minds; different charities who want diametrically different things. Together they can all help to improve lives and strengthen society within the legal framework of charitable status.

With so much aiding and abetting polarisation these days, it has been an absolute privilege to oversee one of the few unifying forces that stand for more pluralism in our lives. 

So, to the 168,000 charities on our register, to the 700,000 trustees who are legally responsible for them and are custodians of something precious to us all, I would just like to end by saying: “Thank you”.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Baroness Stowell to the Social Market Foundation on Thursday. You can read the full transcript here.

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Baroness Tina Stowell is Chair of the Charity Commission.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.