As the Commission publishes its annual report for 2019-2020, chief executive Helen Stephenson CBE takes stock of the past year, and looks ahead to the regulator’s plans for 2020-21.
Reflecting on the year that has passed means starting where it ended, and with the Covid-19 pandemic. The events that have unfolded since March have had, and are continuing to have, a seismic impact on the charity sector, and on thousands of individual charities.
We may not know or understand the full scale of that impact for months, perhaps years. But as we take stock, it is important also to note those things that remain unchanged. In doing so, what strikes me is that our national response to the pandemic has in fact confirmed some basic truths about the sector.
First, we’ve seen again how vital the work of many individual charities in our society is: charities’ work saves, sustains and enriches life in myriad ways. The lockdown has demonstrated the way in which charities have been relied on to provide life-saving services; whilst we have also seen small local community groups innovating and helping people, in support of a common cause.
Second, we have seen just how reliant charities are on the contributions people of all backgrounds make on a continuous basis. The lockdown, which put our daily lives on hold, revealed that many charitable institutions take such an important place in our society precisely because they stand on the shoulders of thousands - charities are as reliant on the support of all sections of our society, as our society is reliant on charity.
Finally – the pandemic has shown that the charitable spirit of our nation expresses itself in many ways, including in the many informal acts of kindness and generosity that people have shown to their neighbours and vulnerable people in their community. Charitable behaviour is not limited to charitable status; so, at the Commission, we take very seriously our responsibility, along with the thousands of charities on our register, to uphold the special status of charity, and justify the privileges enjoyed in the name of charitable status.
As we publish our annual report for 2019-20, I’m confident that we have laid strong foundations which are enabling us to deliver on the ambitious strategy we set out in 2018. Over the past year, we set ourselves two priorities: first, to get the basics of our operations right, to improve our service to charities, and reduce backlogs across our casework teams. Second, to use our voice more authoritatively on behalf of the public, and the public interest in charity.
I am proud of the significant progress my teams have made in our operational efficiency and effectiveness. We reduced the total volume of ‘queued’ casework by 80%, despite increasing demand during the year. We decided a record 9,391 registration applications, and supported an extra 6,000 charities by answering 12,000 more calls, having invested in increasing our contact centre’s capacity. Importantly, we have also improved the service we provide to whistleblowers, who are a crucial source of information about potential wrongdoing in charities.
As well as investing in our services, we have become more vocal in representing public expectations of charity. Where we have found serious wrongdoing in charities, we have articulated more directly why the failures identified matter, as for example in the cases involving Oxfam, Save the Children UK, and more recently, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). And, together with Frontier Economics, we published a paper to help policy and decision makers understand what charity means for, and brings to, our society and the risks to the value it creates when that which makes it distinctive is ignored or misunderstood.
But our journey of improvement must continue with the same pace and enthusiasm with which it has started if we are to fulfil our purpose. Our Business Plan for 2020-2021, published today alongside our annual report, demands that of us.
Open for business
My focus this year is our commitment to being open for business, for the benefit of everyone that has an interest in charity. Whether you are a member of the public raising a concern about a charity, an organisation looking to register as a charity, or a trustee reporting an incident or looking for guidance, the service we provide should be easy to access, efficient and swift. We will aim to make improvements to our core guidance to make it easier to use for trustees and will make our website easier to use. We will launch a more user-friendly view of the Register of Charities, making it easier for the public to find information about charities.
At the same time, we will be a more confident regulator as our work becomes more proactive and intelligence-led, and we continue to use our voice to represent the public interest and call out wrongdoing. Internally, we will become a better, more professional organisation - ensuring we have the right people, with the right skills and expertise, to enable us to deliver effectively against our strategy and purpose.
At the same time as publishing our business plan, we are setting out, for the first time, new performance standards. These operational standards, which we will report on annually, provides a simpler and clearer picture of the timeliness, quality and effectiveness of our work. They offer more information to ensure the public can see how, each year, the Commission is fulfilling its obligations to protect the public interest and the beneficiaries of charities.
This is an ambitious plan. It requires the continuous commitment of our hard-working staff, of which I am confident, and ongoing flexibility as we adapt it to the unforeseen circumstances of Covid-19. I have no doubt that charities will play a key role in helping us recover from the effects of the pandemic; at the Charity Commission we are committed to playing our part in helping to maintain the resilience and reputation of the sector we regulate.