It will be no surprise that as CEO of the Charity Commission a large part of my day is devoted to dealing with charities where things are either about to go wrong, have gone wrong, or have gone very wrong indeed. But this week was a reminder of the good practice that is also present in our sector.
On Thursday, I spoke at the Network of Women Chairs, organised by Dorothy Dalton. I came armed with my usual messages – the need for charities to respond to growing public scrutiny, the importance of capable trustees to the health of the sector, the fundamental role of governance. But I was pushing at an open door. Here was a group of charity chairs who champion sound governance in their own organisations – and understand the value of going beyond that, of working in partnership with others to strengthen the infrastructure of the charitable sector. Not least through networks, exchanges, collaboration.
I had a similar experience with the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools (AGBIS) earlier in the week. The Commission has had a challenging relationship with the independent schools sector in the past – but my time with AGBIS provided a welcome opportunity to see how seriously good governance is taken by many charitable schools. No doubt there is room for improvement here as in any other group of charities, but many schools are shining examples of good processes, well executed.
And Wednesday night provided me with the reminder that good governance and a sound regulatory framework matter precisely because it enables charities to better meet their beneficiaries’ needs. I was delighted to attend the True Honour Awards, hosted and organised by the charity IKWRO, which protects women and girls at risk of so-called ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, child marriage, FGM or domestic violence. The awards recognise women and men whose work, activism or lives have made a difference. This year’s overall winner, Gabriella Gillespie, was honoured for her courage and dedication in fighting violence. Gabriella is a survivor of forced marriage and her story of survival and strength inspired me, and served as an example of the impact individuals, as well as individual charities, can have on the lives of others.
So the week has caused me to reflect on my three years at the Commission, during which I have seen a shift in awareness of governance, a growing understanding of the difference good governance makes to charities’ ability to meet their mission. The Commission has been banging the governance drum for years, making clear that poor management fatally undermines the good causes charities are set up to pursue. The next step is for us to get better at helping trustees make it work in practice, especially those trustees who are less experienced, less well supported than those I met this week. I am confident that we are doing that through sharper, more targeted online guidance, and more streamlined digital services. For example, in the near future, we will launch a new service for charity name changes. What this means in practice is that the process of changing your charity’s name will become smoother, and in most cases quicker, because it will not involve a case worker. It will be, as the tech guys have it, ‘end-to-end digital’. A small win, perhaps, but a significant milestone in the Commission’s journey to becoming a digital by default, risk-led regulator. And later this year, we will launch a new digital charity portal, each charity’s individual gateway to our services and guidance. For trustees with a confident grasp of charity law, the portal’s main impact will be in smoother digital services – for example in the annual return completion process. For those with less knowledge and awareness, I hope it will transform access to the information and guidance they need to run their charities well. And I hope and believe we will see that changing behaviour and improving the quality of trusteeship. For all these reasons, I am genuinely optimistic for the future of the charity sector, notwithstanding the challenges it has faced in recent years.
There’s another reason why I end my week with a slight swing in my step. All of the events and engagements I’ve described had one thing on common. They involved strong, empowered women leading their charities or causes, and supporting their wider networks and the sector at large. Great examples of leadership in the widest sense, and good timing, as we celebrated International Women’s Day.