Charities: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Inquiries, reviews, investigations and legislation. What does the sector need to do to make things better?

The publication of the Etherington Review this week into the regulation of charity fundraising brings to the fore once again recent reputational issues faced by the voluntary sector.

There has been a tide of news, investigations and comment around a raft of issues – including fundraising techniques, the excessive targeting of vulnerable people and the selling of personal information, political campaigning, and Chief Executive’s pay and governance.

It has also been linked to reported shifts in public sentiment towards charities, with recent studies saying public trust in charities is the lowest it’s been for a decade.

All of this has engendered a significant political and regulatory reaction, with the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill headlining the response from Government. The Bill – about to enter the Commons – toughens the powers of the Charity Commission to tackle abuse and require remedial action to fix problems if needs be.

Ministers are expected to amend the Bill to give effect to the Etherington Review recommendations in response to the concerns. The review recommends the replacement of the existing Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) with a new Fund-raising Regulator, an opt-out register for the public, plus naming and shaming and fund-raising suspension ordered on serial offenders.

The Information Commissioner for his part is separately looking into the handling of personal data by charities, and in particular lessons to be learned from the misconduct of fundraising enterprises such as GoGen.

Meanwhile, recent concerns over the collapse of the charity Kids Company has spawned investigations by the NAO, the Public Administration Select Committee, the Charity Commission and Scotland Yard.

The Public Administration Committee is holding a separate inquiry into the fundraising tactics of the charitable sector.

Finally, Charity Commission guidance on fundraising – CC20 – has also recently been reviewed.

Inquiries, reviews, investigations, pieces of legislation. All with their own timetables and milestones, commissioners, chairpersons, directors and officers.

Of course, there are some serious ironies around some of these criticisms. Many in the sector would argue that charities are needed more than ever before to deliver what were public services as the state recedes under austerity and we deal with the challenges of an ageing society. Charitable instincts were also the mainstay of the Prime Minister’s Big Society concept. In addition, charitable fundraising by individuals is more popular than it has ever been.

So while the charity sector reflects on whether self-regulation wasn’t working, it’s important to note that there is a deeply conflicted sentiment at the heart of the current criticisms.

What does the sector need to do differently to make things better?

A remorseless focus on compliance now seems an inevitable hygiene factor – as it has become for the banks, as it is becoming for the automotive sector, and it will become for charities. As part of this, charities must contemplate how the private sector has coped with regulatory shock and rebuilding and learn from it.

Secondly, at the heart of the sector’s strategic communications must be to bring to light its strengths, including the creation of a strong narrative around the vital role charities play set out above.  It is only by mounting a simple and compelling defence in a concerted way that the sector can spike the guns of its critics.

Charities should act collectively through their representative organisations, but also apply strong shared messaging in their individual communications activities, and the sector desperately needs a unifying brand, not just a compliance kite-mark.

Finally, charities must innovate further in the way in which it communicates. Direct mail has its place, and is doubtless effective, but the message must get out to millennials, generation X, generation Y as well to create strong foundations for the future of the sector’s reputation.