Much has changed since War on Want set out its objectives
in 1967, a year that saw the UK decriminalise homosexuality,
marches against US involvement in Vietnam, Greece taken
over by a military dictatorship, and Israel win the Six-Day
War, occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed the
organisation itself today differs considerably to the group
set up to fight “poverty, distress and suffering in
any part of the world”.
It still does so, of course, but no longer through the ground-level
humanitarian work it used to conduct. Much of the charity’s
effort is now focussed on campaigning to tackle the causes
of poverty and promote the human rights that can help prevent
it. “The organisation has evolved,” chief executive
Louise Richards explains.
Until now, though, the charity’s constitution has
not, and its objects, laying out the purposes for which
it was founded, retain the legacy of its past work, mentioning
its role in medical care, for instance. “It doesn’t
at all reflect what the charity actually does now,”
Consequently, this June the charity will put a new set of
objects to the vote at its AGM, which it hopes will finally
bring its objects into line with its present-day reality.
Richards is confident the change will pass. After all, as
she points out: “It’s really just a case of
endorsing what we already do.”
That the move has taken so long to come about and follows,
rather than pre-empts, a shift in the charity’s direction
should be no great surprise. Despite the changes the sector
has seen over the years, charities rarely alter their objects.
Amnesty’s UK charitable arm, for instance, recently
widened them, but mainly to take advantage of the recognition
of promoting human rights as a charitable purpose, allowing
it to fund more of its sister organisation’s campaigning
work. The Women’s Institute, meanwhile, last changed
its objects in 2002, modernising the language and widening
its appeal from an organisation for “rural women”
to those with rural interests, and is planning another review
next year. But these are exceptions, and most charities
seem in no great rush to look again at their founding documents.
This might be a mistake. According to the Charity Commission,
many charities could benefit from a greater focus on their
constitutions. Details of the lessons the Commission has
drawn from its latest round of review visits are expected
in the next couple of months, but some early findings have
already been publicised. One is that 15 per cent of charities
were operating outside their objects, a situation the Commission
thinks is unnecessary. Those working in charities should
treat the governing document as “a living one”,
advised the Commission’s Rosie Chapman, and if they
need to alter their objects, approach the regulator for
help (see below).
The reasons charities wander outside their objects vary,
of course. Sometimes it may be that they are inadequately
drafted in the first place. Jonathan Brinsden, a partner
at Bircham Dyson Bell, says that too many charities are
founded with only a vague notion of what they will actually
do. Others, meanwhile, are too prescriptive, documenting
a range of activities rather than setting out a purpose.
“The more detail you have in your objects, the easier
it is to tie yourself up,” he warns. It’s worth
noting, for instance, that charities such as WWF and Crisis
have been able to expand or shift their focus in recent
years without having to revise their objects.
More commonly, though, gradual changes in the charity’s
operations see it stray from its constitution. According
to Charlotte Watts at Wilsons solicitors, one common problem
is that charities set up to work in a local area find they
outgrow their objects as their work expands.
Eventually, only a small proportion of their work may be
in the location originally envisaged. Similarly, recent
research showed that almost half of charities delivering
public services risked mission drift, which offers another
glimpse as to how organisations can lose sight of their
purposes. “Clearly no charity sets out to act outside
its objects,” remarks Watts. “It’s generally
a result of incremental changes.”
But does it matter? The main danger is that trustees can
find themselves personally liable for losses that occur
as a result of acting outside the charity’s objects.
The situation is slightly different depending on whether
the group is incorporated or not, but the result is the
same. “The purpose of keeping everything within the
framework of the objects is to avoid exposing the trustees
to personal liability,” explains Brinsden. “If
you fail to act within the objects, you stray outside that
In fact, this danger is largely theoretical; the Commission
might make life tricky for trustees who forget their objects,
but there are few examples where they have been held financially
The risks to others can also be overstated. Acevo, for instance,
recently changed its objects to allow it to register as
a charity. According to chief executive Stephen Bubb, the
process essentially involved two years of legal argument
to arrive at a form of words under which the organisation
does the same thing it always has done. “I sometimes
think the objects’ clauses are of more interest to
lawyers than anyone else,” he sighs. “The more
important issue is whether those with perfectly acceptable
legal objects can demonstrate a public benefit.”
But, in fact, others do take an interest in the objects.
Take War on Want, for instance. Its campaigning for Palestinian
rights, in particular, has attracted complaints to the Charity
Commission from those questioning its relevance to the charity’s
objects. It is hoped explicit mention of human rights in
its constitution may help arrest this.
Similarly, Jana Osbourne, general secretary at the National
Federation of Women’s Institutes, says that she doesn’t
expect that her charity’s coming review will actually
change what it does, but it will mean the objects reflect
the charity’s nature more closely.
According to her, the process will not only enable the charity
to modernise its appeal (it wants, for instance, to include
mention of sustainable development) but also facilitate
a discussion with its membership, who will be consulted
on the new wording. It should mean the entire membership
will have a stake in what the charity stands for. And, apart
from anything else, she says, it is just good practice.
“This way, everyone actually understands what we are
Changing your objects
A reason charities may be reluctant to look at their objects
is that changing them is a bit of a pain.
The process differs for trusts and incorporated charities.
The former have a more difficult task because those with
incomes above £10,000 a year need to apply for a scheme
from the Commission to do so, which remains a fairly long-winded
process. On the bright side, though, the Charities Act 2006
means that from next year they will no longer always have
to advertise the proposed changes, and the Commission will
also have greater flexibility when considering what changes
Currently the Commission can only really consider the original
intention of the donors when looking at changes to the objects.
“That means you need to make a pretty good case why
the spirit of the gift can’t be carried out, and the
commission can only really authorise amendments that are
very similar to the original purposes,” explains Wilsons’
Watts. “The Act will allow it to also take into account
the prevailing social and economic circumstances, so it
won’t be so constrained.”
It’s not clear whether this increased flexibility
will apply for incorporated charities, but it is hoped it
may. Either way, such charities need only apply for “section
64” consent under the Charities Act 1993 to change
their objects, which – all things being relative –
is an easier process.
Neither process, though, is so easy or cheap that a charity
would want to undertake it for no good reason – which
is why some are a little exasperated by the Scottish Executive.
The slight mismatch between the English and Scottish definition
of charitable purposes (Scotland’s is slightly narrower)
means that almost any charity with financial interests (such
as premises) in both countries will have to revise its objects
in order to register with OSCR. Appeals to ministers to
disapply parts of the charity test for UK-wide charities
have been rebuffed.
As Alexander Garden, a partner at Turcan Connell, sees it,
that leaves UK-wide charities with two choices: they can
redraft their objects to meet the Scottish charity test,
at the risk of narrowing their objects; or they can, if
their presence north of the border is sufficient, set up
a separate Scottish charity. “Neither of those solutions
is particularly cheap,” he says.
The other option, of course, may be to cease operating in