Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson outlines the challenges she identified during her first months of office.
The first 100 days of any job is significant, never more so than as a chief executive. Some people judge them by how much change has taken place or what initiatives have been announced. However, words of advice from a very wise and experienced public servant were to spend the first 100 days listening – and that is what I aimed to do.
I met many staff, visiting all our offices and spending time with individuals and teams. I was struck by their dedication – fewer than 300 people regulate over 167,000 registered charities and a staggering £74bn of charitable income. Last year, one small team totalling just 30 people, registered over 8,000 new charities alone. It is truly remarkable.
Annually we have nearly 100,000 emails, calls and letters, demonstrating how passionately people feel about charities and that often the Commission is the one place they feel they can turn to. I want to make it easier for people to do business with us, so investment in our digital services is key. We are making good progress, with improvements to how charities make transactions with the Commission, with additional guidance, support and services coming online this year.
I also spent time visiting charities, large and small, reminding myself of the hugely important role they play in our society. Much of this time was spent with charity chief executives, like yourselves, listening to and hearing about the issues you are facing.
Charitable endeavour is at the heart of our society; giving generously of our time and money and helping others is what makes us distinct as a nation. The Charity Commission’s role is to preserve public trust and confidence in the charity sector and we seek to do so to the best of our ability.
However, as a chief executive, there are challenges that I face that I know I share with many of you. We have increased demand on our services with stretched resources, hardworking (often undervalued) staff trying to manage and give their all in difficult circumstances, competing expectations from a wide variety of different stakeholders, and a need to diversify our income. These will sound familiar to many of you!
Through all this though, we must remain true to our core mission. We will continue to hold to account the small proportion of trustees who do not behave as the law and the public expect, but we also recognise and support those who seek to run their charities effectively. Just recently we published our major trustee research project, Taken on trust, which has some interesting findings about the people who make up our trustee bodies.
It shows that, by and large, they find the role fulfilling, and are driven by the causes that are important to them. However, it also highlights some challenges and the real need for more and better support. We know that trustees and charities want that support and that, according to the research, they generally turn to us for it.
So this gives a sense of the issues I seek to address to continue to ensure that we are the regulator that the public, parliament and charities expect and deserve.
I am making the case to government for transition funding to help us bridge the gap between funding and the significant increase in demand on our services. But, in the context of continued pressures on public finances, two insights from these past few months – that the Commission must do more to support charities and trustees, and that our current funding settlement does not allow that – lead me to one longer-term conclusion. Namely that we must start a sensible, open debate about larger charities making a modest contribution to the cost of parts of their regulation.
This is not a new idea, incidentally. There has been provision in primary legislation since 1993. It is accepted practice across other parts of society that regulated communities make a contribution to their regulators. So I am working with my teams, and the board, to draw up proposals for such a system, which I hope we will consult on next year. This work is at an early stage but in order to improve our existing services, and develop new ones, I think it is absolutely vital. And whilst I expect the debate with the sector on this to be heated, it is one I believe we need to have.
Charities in this country fulfil a significant role in society, and I want to ensure that the Charity Commission has the resources it needs to promote public trust and confidence in this vital sector.
My experience of the first 100 days gave me insight to the challenges that we and charities face in the future, reassurance that we are heading in the right direction and, finally, confidence that we, working in partnership with charities, can continue to forge an effective, well-run and vibrant charity sector that the public can trust and have confidence in.
My first 100 days were a whirlwind but there’s no place I’d rather be.