On 4 October 2018, the Charity Commission published its new Statement of Strategic Intent, setting out the regulator’s purpose and objectives for the five years to 2023.

On the same day, the Chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell, gave a speech at the RSA titled ‘The Future of Charity’ to accompany the Statement. The new objectives indicate the Commission’s ambition to ‘shape the agenda’ in public debate about charity, although commentators and the Commission itself note the limited capacity it has to do so.

The Commission’s new core purpose, presented by the Statement and repeated in Baroness Stowell’s speech, is ‘to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society’. 

The Commission has five statutory objectives, set out in the Charities Act 2011. However, the five strategic objectives in the new Statement go beyond what is legally required of the Commission. This is intentional: the Statement characterises the Commission’s purpose as ‘more than the sum of our legal obligations’. The new strategic objectives are:

  1. holding charities to account
  2. dealing with wrongdoing and harm
  3. informing public choice
  4. giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed
  5. keeping charity relevant for today’s world

The new Statement also expects more than just legal compliance from the charities the Commission regulates. In her speech, Baroness Stowell said that both the Commission and charities must ‘think beyond legal structures and activities’. 

Baroness Stowell referenced the research published by the Commission in July which demonstrated a decline in public trust in charities. Against this background, she emphasised that to inspire public trust a charity ‘must be a living example of charitable purpose, charitable attitudes, and charitable behaviour. It must behave like a charity, not just call itself a charity because of the aims it has and the work it does.’ The first strategic objective of the Statement will involve holding charities to account based on that higher expectation.

In terms of the second objective, the Commission wants to deal more proactively with wrongdoing and harm in charities. The Commission intends to retain all complaints about charities and log these to track trends in such complaints. The trend data will enable the Commission to prevent wrongdoing and harm before it happens, or to intervene earlier when it does.

Relevant to both the third and fourth objectives is the Commission’s intention to use the data it holds on charities more productively: as Baroness Stowell put it, to be ‘less of a warehouse for charity data, and more of a curator of knowledge about individual charities, and about the sector’.

In her speech, Baroness Stowell warned that the charity sector risks losing relevance. She noted that there are ways for the public to be charitable without engaging with charities, for example by crowdfunding or by using apps to provide peer-to-peer support. She noted the work done by social enterprises and by traditional for-profit businesses aiming to achieve positive impacts in addition to growth and shareholder value. In this context, the Commission intends to have a more ‘powerful voice’ in both political and public debate, and in encouraging the behaviour people expect of charities.

Several sector individuals and bodies reacted publicly to the Statement and accompanying speech. A number of those quoted wanted to put concerns about the public trust into perspective, and worried that in fact over-focus on these concerns could contribute to rather than alleviate the problem. 

For example, Kieran Goddard, director of external affairs at the Association of Charitable Foundations noted that: ‘while publicising the tiny minority of poor practice may increase public trust in the regulator’s ability to identify sub-optimal behaviour (which is certainly no bad thing) a failure to highlight comparative context may be simultaneously eroding public confidence in the 150,000+ charities to whom the critique does not apply.’

Nevertheless, several commentators, such as Vicky Browning, chief executive of Acevo, felt that Baroness Stowell signalled a less confrontational relationship with the sector than her predecessor William Shawcross. 

Generally, the ambition of the vision set out in both the speech and the Statement was noted and broadly approved. However, the capacity of the Commission, in terms of resources, to deliver on this ambition was queried. The Statement itself explicitly acknowledges that the Commission ‘does not have all the resources necessary to fulfil these ambitions’. For example, the Commission can aim to pre-empt concerns about charities and not to ignore any complaint, but the reality is that there are ongoing and significant delays in the Commission’s processing of serious incident reports.

The NCVO referred to the Statement and speech as an ‘opening salvo in a bid for funding’.  The anticipated consultation on larger charities contributing to the Commission’s resources was not explicitly referenced in either the Statement or the speech. It remains to be seen whether details of a consultation will follow when the Commission finalises its ‘plan of action’ for achieving its new objectives.