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Regulating charities

17 Jul 2019 | David Williams A speech by Helen Stephenson CBE, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, outlines the main challenges facing charities. Parallels may be drawn with some of the issues facing higher education providers, many of whom are exempt charities.

The Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, Helen Stephenson CBE, has delivered a speech to the Nonprofit Academic Centres Council Biennial Conference 2019. In her speech, Regulating charities in line with changing needs in society Stephenson considers “why effective charity regulation matters, and matters increasingly.” Many of the comments resonate with some of the challenges facing the higher education sector.

Two largely unrelated developments are having a profound effect on the work of charities in England. Firstly, at a time when charities “are subject to far greater public scepticism, and consequent scrutiny”, public expectations of charities are rising. Research suggests that the idea of a charity is as much about the behaviours, attitudes and values as it is about the work they undertake. A key point being that the “public no longer automatically assume” that charities meet these expectations. This development is seen as part of the declining automatic trust in public institutions.

The second development is that as the role of charities is growing and becoming more complex, charities are involved in growing numbers in the provision of public services, including services on which government policies depend.

Changing public attitudes and expectations of charities and their growing role in public life leads to a challenge of legitimacy. Stephenson believes charities need to demonstrate two things, namely that:

  1. they are effectively regulated; and
  2. they understand the respond to public expectations are to what makes charities special and distinct from other groups and institutions.

To help meet public expectations the Charity Commission is focusing on the public interest, which involves working beyond the simple fulfilment of its legal duties and responsibilities.

Regulation must have a purpose, and the Charity Commission’s is to be a purpose-led regulator. Its actions are designed “to help ensure charities retain – or some might argue regain – legitimacy.”

Stephenson believes charities have the “potential to model the leadership that the public expect but are not seeing in politics or business or other areas of national life.” And, Charities have the potential to be a source of trust, reassurance, pride and belonging.”

Advance HE has a wide range of resources that support institutions to deliver effective governance. Find out more information here.


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