Interview: Gerald Oppenheim on new priorities and 'freeloading' charities

In 2015, after more than 30 years working in or alongside the charity/voluntary sector, Gerald Oppenheim was working as a freelance consultant and as a trustee for several different organisations. He was not thinking about another major management role – until he had a phone call from Stephen Dunmore, a former colleague at the Big Lottery Fund.

Dunmore was about to become the first chief executive of the new Fundraising Regulator. He asked Oppenheim if he would consider joining him as head of policy and communications. “It was supposed to be a temporary thing: just get it up and running,” Oppenheim recalls. “But that’s not how it’s turned out.”

Instead, two and a half years later, when Dunmore retired in the summer of 2018, Oppenheim succeeded him. He will now lead the organisation as it works towards a new three-year strategic plan, beginning with a major consultation on a new, more user-friendly version of the Code of Fundraising Practice.

This unexpected turn of events is just the latest chapter in a long and rewarding career, which began with a place on the Greater London Council (GLC) graduate scheme in 1973. Having completed a degree in history at the University of Bristol, Oppenheim says he didn’t have any kind of career plan, “probably to my parents’ despair”, although he thinks the decision to work for the GLC must have been based at least in part on a desire to do something “for the public good”.

Oppenheim worked for the GLC for 12 years. From the mid-70s onwards, he worked in housing, coming into contact with third-sector organisations for the first time. Following abolition of the GLC in 1985, he was appointed director of the London Boroughs Grant Scheme, distributing grant finance to voluntary organisations across London.

Building on his growing expertise in the sector, in 1995 he joined the new National Lottery Charities Board as director of policy, then director of policy and partnerships as the board became the Big Lottery Fund in 2005.

He worked there until 2010, while also serving as vice-chair of the BBC Charitable Appeals Advisory Committee (2004 to 2009), chair of trustees at the London Bombings Relief Charitable Fund (2005 – 2008); and as a trustee of the Camden CAB (2009 to 2017), The Camden Society (2009 - 2017); and the Asda Foundation (2013 – 2018).

Oppenheim says he leapt at the opportunity Dunmore offered in 2015 because he thought working for the new regulator would be both interesting and important. He had observed and been horrified by the fundraising scandals that afflicted the sector in the middle of this decade; and saw the danger they posed to the sector as a whole. “Charities are still potentially one story away from facing huge difficulties,” he says.

The creation of the Fundraising Regulator

The Fundraising Regulator was established following a 2015 government-led review
into the self-regulation of fundraising. It recommended that a new regulator should
take responsibility for the Code of Fundraising Practice and adjudication against it; with the regulator to be funded by a levy based on fundraising expenditure.

“This was, in effect, government saying to charities: ‘this is your last chance to get your fundraising right, because the alternative will be statutory regulation’,” Oppenheim says. “But I don’t think we realised at the outset, in January 2016, just how complicated the task of addressing these issues was. It certainly turned out not to be a six-month set-up job for a freelancer.”

Priorities in the regulator’s new three-year strategic plan include further improvement of fundraising standards through use and refinement of the code and work with partners including the Charity Commission, Scottish Fundraising Standards Panel, Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, and the Institute of Fundraising.

The regulator will also continue to develop and ensure compliance with the work of the Fundraising Preference Service (FPS) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Another key area of work at present is to ensure effective regulation of the growing number of online fundraising platforms.

At present, Oppenheim and his team are focusing on the consultation on the new version of the code, which runs until 16 November. The code has been redrafted to make it easier to use, with more use of plain English – although this is balanced with the need to retain the nuances of the law upon which it is based.


One fundamental issue facing the regulator is the need to collect the levy that funds its work. At present, charities that spend more than £100,000 per year on fundraising are asked to pay between £150 and £15,000 to the regulator. Those that spend less than £100,000 on fundraising can ‘register’ with the regulator, effectively stating their commitment to its work and to the code, for £50.

In the regulator’s first year, collecting the levy was, Oppenheim admits, “a struggle”. “That was not a surprise, because it was a new levy that charities might not necessarily have budgeted to pay,” he suggests. “But we managed, in the end, to collect 80 per cent of what we were trying to raise.

“There has been a huge improvement in year two, where we collected 93 per cent of what we needed to raise [about £1.9 million]. We have had 1,665 charities pay and another 1,500 have registered. On top of that we’ve got around 100 commercial bodies also paying a fee related to their turnover.”

The seven per cent shortfall in the second year was accounted for by 120 charities, with annual fundraising spend of over £100,000 failing to pay the levy. Oppenheim says 25 of these organisations have refused to pay. The rest have not responded to the request for payment.

“You ask yourself, what do they think they’re doing?” he says. “If somebody says: ‘We don’t want to pay because of X’, at least you can have a discussion with them. But if people don’t even bother to reply, you can’t do that. I’ve used the word ‘freeloading’ and I think that’s fair: they’re coasting on the back of charities that have paid. These are not small charities: many are spending £100,000 to £150,000 on fundraising per year, so you can extrapolate from that a £1 million turnover – ask a member of the public if they think that’s a small charity.”

Future plans

All charities that need to have their accounts audited are now required by law to include a statement in annual reports (from 2017/2018 onwards) stating which voluntary fundraising schemes or standards the organisation abides by. More light will be shed on the non-paying organisations over the next few months, as the relevant accounts are lodged with the Charity Commission.

The levy has been set at the same level for the first three years of the regulator’s existence, but a consultation on its future opens in November and will run into early 2019. This will determine the level at which the levy will be set in year four, which starts in September 2019; and whether banding for the levy should be changed.

One final objective is to ensure that the work of the regulator and the code are both helpful to smaller charities. Oppenheim says the need to put the code into plain English was driven in part by an appreciation of the needs and resources available to smaller organisations. Events targeted at helping these organisations during the code consultation include a webinar that was run in partnership with the NCVO in late September; and a masterclass to be delivered at the Directory for Social Change conference in late November, using anonymised real life case studies to determine what does or does not constitute a breach of the code.

“We won’t produce a code that is just for small charities,” says Oppenheim. “Where there’s law backing up the code it doesn’t differentiate between large and small charities. But we know that smaller charities have less resource and need a lot more support.”

Oppenheim’s enthusiasm for the task of leading the regulator is obvious. He says he is now focusing on delivering the three-year strategic plan for the regulator, rather than creating any kind of strategic plans for himself. “In terms of me, I’m not sure what comes next,” he says. “It depends on what might turn up.”

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