What lessons can charities learn from the Charity Commission’s inquiry report on RNIB?

What lessons can charities learn from the Charity Commission’s inquiry report on RNIB?

The recent publication by the Charity Commission of a highly critical report on the RNIB, a household name charity, identified serious issues relating to governance and keeping beneficiaries safe. The Commission has, at the same time, published a regulatory alert for large service delivery charities which addresses similar issues.

The Commission’s report emphasises the importance and focus set out in its current strategy that charities need to live up to their purpose and the high expectations of the public - “Charities represent the best of human characteristics – that is why the way charities do their work matters”. The report states “…charities need to show they are making decisions for the right reasons and with the right results. They must be motivated solely by their purpose and carefully consider the best interests of beneficiaries. Particularly as their operations expand and become more complex, they should be certain that whatever they do enhances the lives of those in their care...No charity is more important than its purposes or the people it cares for.”.

This article will consider the wider lessons from the report. Some issues are relevant to larger charities with more complex structures but there are useful considerations and lessons for all charities around good governance and safeguarding.

Serious incident reporting

It is important that trustees are fully conversant with the Charity Commission’s guidance on reporting serious incidents. It is important that there is prompt, full and frank disclosure of an incident which falls within the Commission’s guidance on what is deemed ‘serious’ – there is an examples table included in the guidance to assist trustees in deciding what sorts of incident to report and there has recently been further guidance around issues arising due to the pandemic (and further examples table). If you are unsure whether to report, you should seek professional advice. If your charity’s income is over £25,000, you must, as part of the annual return, sign a declaration confirming there were no serious incidents during the previous financial year that should have been reported to the Commission but were not.

If trustees fail to report a serious incident that subsequently comes to light, the Commission may consider this to be mismanagement, for example where the trustees have failed to manage the risks properly and breached their legal duties. This may prompt regulatory action, particularly if further abuse or damage has arisen following the initial incident.

Having a range of skills on the board of trustees

A governance review commissioned by the charity and cited by the Commission in its report highlighted a skills deficit within the board of trustees which related to, among other things, safeguarding. The review found that the balance of skills on the board had hindered board effectiveness.

At the time of the investigation, the charity’s governing document required at least 75% of trustees to be blind or partially sighted. During the investigation, the Commission authorised the appointment of 3 new trustees who were not visually impaired for a period of 16 months and recommended that the provisions in the governing document were reviewed to allow for the relevant skill sets and experience to be recruited on the board. The report notes that in relation to trustee board “no single person had direct qualifying experience of regulated establishments catering to children and/or adults with complex needs”.

Effectiveness of the board of trustees and its decision-making

The board of trustees must exercise effective oversight. In larger charities, where there are various operations and different areas of work, careful consideration needs to be given as to how matters are reported and via which members of staff or committees etc. to ensure that the trustees gain the knowledge and awareness that they need to ensure compliance and identify issues at an early stage.

Robust internal reporting protocols must be put in place including a clearly defined hierarchy of accountability for safeguarding concerns. However, trustees should not rely on these reporting systems alone and should make visits to operations such as care homes, schools etc. being run by their charity and observe/ask questions of the staff to satisfy themselves that operations are running smoothly and in line with statutory and best practice requirements established by the charity.

In larger organisations, there needs to be a central function to collate incidents before a decision is made on reporting to the various regulators and to collate and make decisions on next steps for all safeguarding concerns. Clear terms of reference should be set for all group operations and committees.

Problems can arise where a high degree of autonomy is given to certain operations of the charity, particularly regulated establishments. Alarm bells should sound for trustees and senior management teams where difficulties arise in accessing and obtaining data and reports and requests for information.

The report found that there was a culture at RNIB where strategy was too slow to be implemented, with the independent review commissioned by the charity finding that there was a dysfunction in leadership and that governance and trust had broken down between some of the executives and trustees. A common governance issue for charities is managing the relationship between the trustees and senior management team and this must be handled proactively by the trustees to ensure that the issues do not escalate. The Commission notes that it is normal in a large and complex charity for the executive to have significant decision-making authority, but reiterates that the trustees must still be willing and able to hold the executive to account.

The board of trustees needs to be aware of its role and functions, particularly in a larger group operation. The independent review noted that the board “… never realised its role as the Board of a group structure, with appropriate attention to how it exercises oversight across its different activities, attends to the interdependency of risk and financial matters, and ensures the senior leadership reporting and company secretary adroitness required to keep the Board informed about performance and risk”.

Charities should use the Charity Governance Code as a tool to improve their governance and adhere to best practice. The Commission notes that whilst the code is not a legal requirement it represents a standard of good governance practice. It seems that the Commission will measure charities’ governance against the Code when conducting an inquiry.

Culture

One of the key themes of the report is the responsibility of the trustees to create the appropriate culture within an organisation. An effective culture that aims to keep people safe identifies, deters and tackles behaviours which minimise or ignore harm to people or cover up or downplay failures. These incidents need to be identified and lessons learnt, with full and frank disclosure, including to regulators. Charities which deal with complaints in an open and proactive way are able to develop trust with beneficiaries and other stakeholders and prevent future harm.

The report criticises the RNIB’s culture as too insular and dismissive of external criticism, for example, from OFSTED, the CQC and parents. It notes that culture needs to go beyond narrow regulatory compliance. A charity’s culture is set by the trustees, who should lead by example and model the behaviours expected throughout the organisation. There should be clear consequences for not following the charity’s procedures and these should be consistently implemented.

Safeguarding

Safeguarding must be a governance priority for all charities. Trustees must take reasonable steps to protect people who come into contact with their charity from harm in order to fulfil their trustee duties. As the Commission’s report notes, “protecting people from harm is not an overhead to be minimised, it is a fundamental and integral part of operating a charity for the public benefit”.

It is important to have robust safe recruitment protocols, including for agency staff and where staff and volunteers (including trustees) are eligible for DBS checks, these should be sought. It is sensible to put in place a safe recruitment checklist to ensure consistency and compliance. Staff should receive an induction and training suitable for their role and experience and there should be a probation period and policy with clear mandatory training requirements where individuals are working in a regulated activity. A practical and accessible Code of Behaviour should be in place where charities work with vulnerable groups. This should be used consistently across the organisation and should form part of an employee or volunteer’s induction process.

Record-keeping is extremely important, particularly where providing regulated services – if this is poor, then it will become difficult for the trustees to be aware of issues that need to be reported as serious incidents or lower-level issues that need addressing. The report notes that “a lack of oversight…of staff and services allowed a working practice to develop that was not child centred…systems did not support practice, record keeping was poor, training inadequate…”.

Risk management

Trustees must actively understand the risks to their charity and make sure those risks are properly managed; the higher the risk, the greater the expectation and the more oversight is need. In larger charities, there should be a risk/audit inspection function that reports centrally within the charity.

Assurance

Larger operational charities should put in place a Safeguarding Quality Assurance Framework to ensure that standards are consistently high and expectations clear. Services and operations should be regularly measured against the framework and actions/risks identified added to the risk register of the charity with clear action plans identified, put into action and regularly reviewed.

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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