Charity Commission publishes new research: Regulating in the Public Interest

On 15 June 2020, the Charity Commission published research from Populus examining the relationship between Charity, charities and the general public: Regulating in the Public Interest. This is very worthwhile reading for all charities in order to better understand the drivers of public support.

When the Charity Commission launched its statement of strategic intent for 2018 – 2023, the Commission stated: “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.”

2020 has seen the sector face great challenges but society has needed Charity to thrive more than ever before. At the same time, there is a demand for greater scrutiny and accountability and so in order to increase resilience, the public interest must be brought to the fore.

The report identifies the following four shared expectations held of all charities, regardless of size:

A high proportion of charities’ money should be used for charitable activity

Knowing where the money goes came out top as the most important factor when it comes to the way a charity operates and greatly influences public trust towards the sector. The public expects a high proportion of the money raised by charities to be spent on charitable activity in order to maximize the impact on beneficiaries, as opposed to spending a high proportion of funds on administration costs and wages.

Charities should be making the impact they promise to make

Fulfilling the promise of impact was voted as the second most important expectation. The public expects charities to evidence how far their donations go and how much of a difference is made. Real examples in addition to hard statistics help to reassure the public that charities can be trusted to fulfil their purposes.

That the way charities go about making that impact should be consistent with the spirit of ‘Charity’

The “how” matters as much as the “what”. The research found that by almost a two to one ratio, the public considers that the way charities go about meeting their charitable purposes is as important as whether they fulfil those purposes or not. Part of the reason for this is that the public views charities in a different way to other organisations, describing them as “well-meaning”, “principled” and “responsive” in comparison to businesses who were described by the public as “ruthless”, “professional” and “arrogant”.

All charities should show a collective responsibility to each other in adhering to the above

Registered charity status brings the public a level of reassurance as between 70% - 80% say that knowing a charity is registered makes them feel more confident in the efficiency, impact and conduct of that charity.

The final shared expectation is that registered charities enjoying the benefits of that status have a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of Charity more generally and as seen in recent years, a number of high-profile scandals including Oxfam have had severe consequences regarding the public’s perception of charities in general.

Trust scores

Populus asked members of the public on a scale of 0 – 10 how much trust and confidence they have in charities overall. The trust scores, assessed before the onset of the pandemic, saw an improvement from 5.5/10 in 2018 to 6.2/10 in February 2020. However, these scores have failed to recover to their pre-2014 level of 6.7/10 and although the charity sector fares better when compared with other sectors and groups, including private companies (5.1/10) and the ordinary man or woman in the street (5.5/10) the sector ranks below Police (6.5/10) and Doctors (7.3/10).

Charities are not the only way to channel support

The report identifies that, pre-COVID, 55% of the public saw charities as the best way of channelling support for good causes and similarly, 55% of the public said that charities play an “essential” or “very important” role in society. However, the latter score has seen a significant decline from the 76% recorded in 2012. The research highlights that 69% see charitable endeavour as something anyone can undertake and this has been witnessed throughout recent months with more and more people offering support directly to worthy local causes, for example by volunteering in their local community or donating food directly to food banks.

Trustees’ Expectations

The report does identify that Trustees and the general public are mostly aligned in terms of their expectations. However, Trustees feel more strongly in relation to Expectation 3 with 71% of Trustees believing that the way a charity goes about meeting its charitable purpose is as important as whether it fulfils that purpose or not in comparison to 52% of the general public surveyed.

67% of the Trustees surveyed said that they had a clear understanding about how public expectations ought to shape the way charities go about what they do. However, the report highlights a troubling statistic in relation to charities falling short of public expectations, as 36% of Trustees surveyed said that it was because the public don’t understand the complexities and difficulties involved in comparison to just 39% who said that it was a question of charities not spending enough time and trouble understanding public expectations and trying to meet them.

The Role of the Charity Commission

Finally, the report acknowledges that although just one in five (19%) of the population have a detailed understanding of the Charity Commission’s work, “twice as many (53% to 27%) think the charity regulator should try to ensure that charities fulfil their wider responsibilities to society rather than just making sure they stick to the letter of the law."

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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