The Charity Commission and Frontier Economics recently published The value of the charity sector. As with many recent events, reports and initiatives I have engaged with, it has left me with mixed feelings.
Take the recent appointment of the new Minister Baroness Barran – who has a lot of experience in the sector – and the initiative she has embarked upon to engage with the sector around the civil society strategy. When I participated in a roundtable with her, I heard a lot of things that encouraged me and I perceived a genuine desire to engage. But in those discussions, particularly with civil servants present, I noticed I felt discomfort.
I loved much of Julia Unwin’s report into the future of civil society. Particularly, the encouragement to relinquish power to our beneficiaries, to ground what we do locally, in community, and the importance of having trusting collaborative relationships, are all things that resonate with me. And so, at first glance, there is little for me to disagree with. But still, I notice my sense of discomfort.
I also find there is much in what Baroness Stowell says and in the actions of the Charity Commission – which encourages charities to be true to their purpose – to be very positive. And yet I feel that prick of discomfort again.
So I’ve been reflecting. Why do I feel uncomfortable? Have I just slipped into a negative and closed mind set? Has the febrile atmosphere of Brexit finally worn me down? I don’t think so. There is good reason to not brush aside these feelings, or to settle down and get comfortable just yet.
We all know that the value to society, which flows from charity, is so much more than financial; charities play an important role in social cohesion, wellbeing and civic engagement. In the current environment, thinking about charity as a solution to the deep economic and social divides that exist in our society is a must.
So the cause of my discomfort? The narrative, which lurks in the background, like a saboteur, threatening to undermine these warm words and clearly good intents: public ‘trust’.
Let me stress, I whole heartedly agree that charities should be trustworthy. It’s in my charity’s vision statement after all! We should aim for the highest standards of conduct and behaviour, act in the public interest, deliver public benefit and do no harm. However, I have a real problem with the continued focus on trust driven by what the public say they want and how much they say they trust charities in any given moment.
It assumes that what the public wants is in the public interest and will deliver public benefit. It assumes that if we are not trusted it is because we are not trustworthy.
But who should set the standards against which we are marked? Do we fully understand what creates and withdraws trust? Do we know whether it has any bearing on how charities raise and spend income or on the delivery of their charitable activities? Do we perpetuate the problem by continuously asking the public who they trust in a climate where trust as a concept is a diminishing commodity?
I believe instead we should be focussing on public interest (and the inherent relevant charitable obligation of ‘public benefit’). The public interest is something that transcends popularist opinions. It is about the good of society, the welfare and well-being of the general public.
In the ICAEW publication Acting in the public interest, the organisation says: “The public interest is an abstract notion. Asserting that an action is in the public interest involves setting oneself up in judgement as to whether the action or requirement to change behaviour will benefit the public overall – a far greater set of people than can be interacted with directly. It involves interference in people’s ability to go about their business or sometimes, as a positive policy decision, non-interference in the face of alternative actions.”
We can no longer ‘…count on being given the benefit of the doubt.’ And we shouldn’t, because trusting blindly is a fools’ game. We should stay on our toes and constantly ask whether we’re delivering public benefit and challenge ourselves to deliver the best outcomes. But is our ability to meet growing demand really dependent on ‘retaining the confidence of the public’ or, more worryingly, meeting the public’s ‘view’ of the value of the sector’?
We need to answer more fundamental questions: what kind of society do we want and what role does charitable activity play in that? What structure, funding and operating environment delivers public benefit and supports a sector which acts in the public interest?
The simplistic notion that we should respond to what the public wants and the assertion that they alone should be able to set the parameters of what it should mean to be a charity, is flawed. The demand that we deliver more for less and that we can provide ‘low cost or no cost’ ways of tackling the wicked problems society faces – rather than accepting that a fundamental shift is required, which will needs investment and radical change – is unrealistic. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that these are entirely dependent on this subjective notion of trust either.
So I welcome the warm words and the genuine good intent but I have concluded that my discomfort comes from whether there is any truth in the saying that the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
Caron Bradshaw is the chief executive of the Charity Finance Group