Oxfam crisis exposes the failure of UK charity regulation

The Charity Commission gave Oxfam a clean bill of health as recently as 2017. Yet underfunding is at least partly to blame.

By Asheem Singh

Asheem Singh is the former interim chief executive of Acevo, the network for charity and social enterprise leaders. He is a journalist, campaigner, broadcaster and author.

The Oxfam scandal, which has now seen the resignation of the UK charity’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, has raised huge questions – both for the public and for those who work in the charity sector.

How could such a beloved British institution cover up even isolated cases of vile sex abuse? How many more charities harbour similar skeletons?

But while the focus of the growing crisis should rightly be on those who abused their positions – and our donations – at least part of our anger should be directed at the Charity Commission. This is the body whose job it is to investigate charities and take them to task when the need arises.

The failure here is stark. The commission has said it received information in August 2011 about an ongoing investigation into allegations of misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti. Oxfam dealt with the matter as an internal issue and the commission did not ask for further information. It took Oxfam’s representations about that incident on face value, though we know that it also had queries about safety procedures and worked with Oxfam on those. Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, as recently as December 2017 the regulator gave Oxfam what amounted to an all-clear.

The commission has now acted: over the weekend, it demanded urgent clarification from Oxfam about the use of sex workers in Haiti. But six years on, after the story has broken, is too late. And the green light given by the commission apparently did not take into account stories of abuse and safeguarding failures in Oxfam’s charity shops.

In recent years, the Charity Commission has had a habit of following rather than leading, being reactive rather than proactive. The commission says it receives more than a thousand claims every year about the safeguarding of vulnerable individuals – a number the organisation’s head of investigations, Michelle Russell, describes as “a lot”. But given that the commission regulates 168,000 UK charities, is that really so unexpected? And is it too much to expect, in a civilised society, that the safeguarding of our most vulnerable people should be properly funded?

Of course, the commission has been underfunded for years. Its 2016 budget of £21.2m was roughly half its budget in 2008. Repeated calls from the sector to put more into regulation have for the most part been ignored.

Lack of funding has been exacerbated by the way the commission has been run. The appointments procedure has been abused by successive governments. This important watchdog has become a sort of trophy partner, a badge to be tossed about to “our kind of people” at whim. Its last chair, William Shawcross, was a journalist and historian who had previously only briefly, if ever, worked in an office. The incoming chair is Conservative peer Tina Stowell, who has, to her credit, agreed to renounce her peerage to get up to speed. But it enhances the perception that the commission is not treated by the government as a serious regulatory body, but as a plaything or personal fiefdom. If the government won’t take the Charity Commission seriously, why should the public?

The commission’s own solution to dealing with its funding crisis has been to suggest that large charities fund it [pdf]. This notion must now be dead in the water. How, after all, could the public be sure that larger charities would not be able to buy silence, formally or informally, when this already stretched organisation has proven itself incapable, even in the absence of such influence, of effectively holding these international charity megabrands to account?

The Charity Commission has been gutted and generally treated by those at the top as a way of pursuing their own agendas.

This is a sorry tale that has now crippled trust in the sector as a whole and may do so for years. My own proposal to begin to repair the damage is to place in the crucial position of commission chair someone with years of experience of safeguarding and working with children, surely the most critical of the charity commission’s responsibilities. That is the very least the victims of this tragedy deserve.

Source: Guardian Voluntary Sector Online

Civil servants seconded to charities

Working with a charity gives fast stream graduates a view of life outside government – and the impact for charities can be huge.

Working with a charity that uses rugby to address issues of unemployment, crime and antisocial behaviour probably wasn’t what Yasmine Hafiz had in mind when she applied for the civil service fast stream. But she says the six months she spent with School of Hard Knocks was incredibly valuable.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I found it enormously rewarding,” she says. “You can see positive things happening in people’s lives as a direct result of your work.”

Hafiz’s secondment was organised by the Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG), a not-for-profit organisation that works to improve relations between the public, private and charitable sectors through its Charity Next programme. Originally conceived by the Prince of Wales 10 years ago, Charity Next has placed 275 civil servants with charities and has now been incorporated by the Cabinet Office into the prestigious three-year civil service fast stream scheme, which gives graduates a choice of spending six months with a charity or a private company in their second year.

Around a third of fast streamers choose to spend time with a charity, says Peter Unwin, WIG chief executive and former director general of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). “What it gives civil servants, at a very early stage in their career, is an opportunity to go out and work in a frontline organisation that’s going to be organised very differently from government, and a perspective on what government looks like from the outside,” he says.

WIG receives up to 100 applications from charities for each of the two intakes of graduates a year. The process can be rigorous: the roles offered need to be well-defined, and the charities well-organised, with a measurable impact for the charity and civil servant. “The [civil service] is paying the salary for six months, so [the role] has got to be something that’s going to stretch and develop [the fast streamer],” says Unwin.

So far, School of Hard Knocks has successfully applied for seven graduates. The operations director, Jack Lewars, heard about the scheme when the organisation only had three members of full-time staff. “What attracted us to it,” he says, “apart from the fact that it would be a very capable graduate from a very competitive scheme, was that adding a full-time position to a team of three would make an almost unimaginable difference in capacity. It was completely priceless.”

The role for fast streamers at School of Hard Knocks has evolved over the years after a purely communications role proved too straightforward. Lewars admits the biggest challenge in managing the graduates has been giving them enough to do. “We needed to stretch them more,” he adds. “If they’re stepping out of pretty significant strategic roles in major government departments, the worst thing you can do is underutilise them.”

In the six months Hafiz spent at School of Hard Knocks, working as a finance and marketing officer, she managed the day-to-day accounts, redesigned the charity’s annual report and visited frontline workers and service users. She says there are many lessons she’ll take back to the civil service with her, not least the ability to think creatively about problems. Hafiz feels she better understands the perspective and insight the charitable sector can bring to policymakers in government, and has new-found empathy for the financial hardships many charities face.

“I don’t think I understood that beforehand,” she says. “[Charities] are concerned about stability above all else. They’re concerned about the outcomes for people they’re trying to help, but they have to keep the lights on.

“At the same time, if you have an idea at School of Hard Knocks, the organisation is small enough that you can implement it. The civil service could learn something about that approach by being a bit more innovative, a bit less risk averse. If we’re too careful, it means we might not be taking risks that can lead to real improvement or real change.”

For the charity, too, working with fast streamers has given them a new understanding of government bodies. School of Hard Knocks has had a number of contracts to work with unemployed adults, via the Department for Work and Pensions. While the graduates can’t actively introduce them to people in government to facilitate new contracts, they can explain different department priorities, alert them to a recently published white paper, or suggest what a new policy might be trying to achieve. The experience has also helped the charity grow to a team of 14 and a turnover of £1m a year.

“This scheme offers the chance to bring in really hardworking, really bright, really focused people who will work their socks off for you for six months,” says Lewars. “In five years, we’ve gone from being a startup to turning over just over £1m a year. I don’t think we could have done it without the fast stream.”

Source: Guardian Voluntary Sector Online

Evaluation of the Local Sustainability Fund published

NCVO has published the report of the evaluation of the Local Sustainability Fund.

This was a £20m programme funded by the Office for Civil Society and managed by the Big Lottery Fund, which was announced in June 2015 and funded 257 organisations across the UK. The fund aimed to build the strength, resilience and sustainability of small and medium-sized frontline voluntary, community, and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations that offer needed and effective services to vulnerable disadvantaged people.

The report found that:

  • 94% of grant holders reported improvements in the ‘strength, sustainability and resilience’ of their organisation over the course of their LSF project.
  • Nearly half (45%) felt this was ‘predominantly due to LSF’ while a further 51% said they felt it was ‘partially to do with LSF’.
  • Larger organisations were more likely to have seen bigger positive changes in their sustainability score than smaller ones.

Find out more here.

Why society has never needed charities more

An open letter from Sir Stuart Etherington

Research published last week found Britons describing ‘the mood of the nation’ as‘uncertain, anxious and divided’.

I want to tell you that our sector should help fix this. And that we can help fix this.

While I think we must be careful not to over-interpret such views — historians could show us examples of similar fretting from many points in time – there is no doubt that there is in the air a palpable feeling that things are not as they should be in our country and in our world. A sense of unease and fractiousness.

Belonging and fulfilment

People want a sense of belonging and connectedness. And our sector is central to providing this.

I see it as an integral part of our role that we place building connections between people and building community at the heart of our work.

Some of these things we’ve always done are now more important than ever. Your organisations connect people to causes, connect people to one another, connect them to something larger than themselves and give them a way to make a difference to the world around them.

Volunteering in particular has an important role to play. We know volunteering strengthens communities. We know people find it fun, rewarding and enriching. We know volunteering can be empowering, and even in trying circumstances it can make people feel better about themselves and the world around them. We know it tends to engender compassion and understanding.

Over the coming year we will see lots of debate on the outlook for our sector. The Future of Civil Society Inquiry will be working towards its conclusions to be launched in 2019. Whatever the sector looks like in ten or twenty years, there is no doubt in my mind that a core, defining part of our work will be these connections we build.

Your organisation, our sector, is crucial. Even, or especially, as we see vast changes in society and technology.

The web is a vehicle, not a destination

I fear it has become too easy to claim that spontaneous online actions or networks can replace organisations, institutions, or experts. That they might render us redundant. I think while they present a challenge and an opportunity, this is far from the case.

Take the Grenfell disaster. Without doubt, one of the most horrific sights of our country’s recent history.

Immediately, there was a spontaneous outpouring of giving.

It was a reminder both of the remarkable impulse we have to offer help in such a situation. To people in distress whom we have never met, whether on the other side of a city, a country, or the world.

You will doubtless recall images of the piles of clothing taken to give to residents. Very quickly, the area was overwhelmed with such donations.

Online, hundreds of people created their own individual fundraising appeals using the various donation websites.

All of this was entirely well-intentioned and commendable, but it also created a vast logistical and legal jumble.

It took the global-scale capacity of the likes of the British Red Cross, the local knowledge of organisations such as the Portobello Rugby Trust and the experience of the London Emergencies Trust to turn these individual efforts into an outstanding coordinated response.

Much credit is also due to the Charity Commission for taking on the coordination of many of the disparate fundraising efforts and resolving the legal problems that had been inadvertently created by those starting their own online efforts.

Malicious claims that donations were misused gained little traction, in no small part due to the commitment to transparency from the organisations involved, showing exactly what had been spent, how and why. Such action stems from diligent, experienced governance.

None of this could be achieved by an online fundraising platform or a Facebook group. Much giving was facilitated by the internet, but it took real organisations to make the difference with that money.

We need trusted institutions

I fear that a healthy scepticism towards authority, combined with an empowering new ability for all of us to be able to do things online by ourselves – has led to a side-lining of institutions and organisations.

Who needs consumer regulations when you have online reviews to wheedle out scams?

Who needs a cab company when you have an app to find a nearby driver?

Who needs banks when you have Bitcoin?

Who needs charities when you have websites where you can give directly to those in need?

Fortunately I think that this is the year when people will realise that new technologies don’t have all the answers.

People need organisations they can trust. Organisations like yours provide the belonging people are looking for, they provide expertise, they provide focus and direction, and they ensure accountability.

Ironically, even when people do things online, such as donating on a giving platform, they assume a trusted institution somewhere is looking after their interests – even when this isn’t the case.

There are many big questions to answer about the future of the sector. But I am confident that, while we have powerful new online tools that some would suggest allow us to be bypassed, organisations like yours will always be at the heart of everything that is special about our sector and our society.

Building lasting communities

The internet was touted as a way to bring together those of different backgrounds. In practice, of late it has too often seemed to bring together those of similar backgrounds in opposition to others.

It has been used as much to create disharmony as harmony. Rancour and distrust have permeated through social networks which have seemed happy to operate with scarcely any of the standards we value and uphold in our offline communities.

After 2017, it is clearer than ever that the internet is not the solution to smoothing over the cracks of division in society.

It is living, breathing organisations which must step up to do this. Bringing people together and bringing out the best in them.

Organisations of all kinds, but of our kind in particular, are the glue that hold society together.

Building communities and connections can start online but it needs to go further. And we need an active effort to make it happen and strengthen social connections. We know that people who are connected to one another lead healthier, happier lives. This needs the dedication and the structure that charities and community groups provide.

I would like us all to think hard about the focus we put on this element of our work. Never has it been more necessary.

For my part, I have written about some of the ways we can stimulate community action and strengthen organisations in a pamphlet published last month. In it, I highlighted the recommendation from NCVO and others that dormant financial assets, which the government believes amount to £2bn, should be used to endow communityfoundations and provide capital for local community groups. I believe this would be a way to put smaller organisations on a sustainable footing for the long term. It is something we will continue to push the government for.

In any case, a new year is a time for new resolve. I hope we will all do more to make the case for community this year. For shared values. And for your crucial role in creating and sustaining them.

With every best wish,

Sir Stuart Etherington
Chief Executive NCVO

Seeing in the New Year

Key changes affecting the charity sector will come into force in 2018. Here is a reminder of what to expect.

New rules on how charities submit their financial information and process personal data will be introduced this year

The Annual Return 2018

In September 2017 the Charity Commission launched a consultation about changes to the Annual Return for financial years starting on or after 1 January 2018 (AR18).

Depending on the size of the charity there are varying levels of reporting:

  • All but the smallest of charities (those with an income of less than £10,000) must submit an Annual Return to the Charity Commission within ten months of the end of their financial year.
  • Charities with an income exceeding £25,000 must submit a set of annual accounts as well as an independent examiner’s or audit report, and a trustees’ annual report, with their annual return.
  • All Charitable Incorporated Organisations (CIOs) must submit an annual return and annual accounts. If a CIO has an income of more than £25,000, it must also submit an independent examiner’s or audit report, and a trustees’ annual report, alongside its annual return.

The consultation came in response to growing public interest in charities, particularly around salaries and overseas operations.

The Charity Commission have developed a new online system which aims to make the 2018 Annual Return easier and quicker for charities to complete. Smaller charities with simpler operating structures will have to answer fewer questions than larger, more complex organisations. Further, if a charity’s details remain up-to-date, they will simply need to confirm their accuracy rather than re-enter the same information.

The Commission is proposing to introduce a number of new questions in the AR18, including a section on executive pay, and the inclusion of a requirement, as proposed by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, that charities provide details of the amount and source of funding they receive from overseas.

Other questions include how many central or local government contracts a charity has received, and what the value is; how much Gift Aid they have claimed; what methods of money transfer they use; and if the charity has a trading subsidiary.

Tips for filing your annual return:

Check out gov.uk/send-charity-annual-return for advice on how to submit your 2017 annual return.

Before you start, you’ll need:

  • Your charity’s online services password
  • Your registered charity number
  • Registration numbers for any linked charities (if applicable)

Don’t leave it to the last minute – failure to file on time is against the law.

Use the Charity Commission’s online services to file your annual information – attempts to file by letter or email will not be processed and your charity’s online register entry will be marked as overdue.

If you have all the information you need, completing your annual return should only take about 20 minutes – so get online, and file on time this January.


In May 2018 the European Union General Data Protection Regulation will come into force, introducing a new set of rules for organisations to process personal data. The regulations will apply across the board for campaigning, marketing, managing volunteers and recording information about service users.

All charities and businesses are required to comply. Start by arranging an audit of what personal data you hold, where it came from, and who you share it with, to get a sense of what you’ll need to do next.

It is also important that organisations train volunteers in data protection, the same way as they would employees.

The key elements to review with GDPR are how you ask for consent, including for data you may already hold – having a privacy policy on your website will no longer be enough.

Responsibility for privacy protection will not solely lie with the organisation or charity controlling the data, so it is worth reviewing your contracts with any third party processors. Also, make sure your systems are user friendly, so that users can access their own personal data at any time.

Finally, beware of data breaches – under the new regulations, the Information Commissioner’s Office has the right to impose increased fines and penalties.

Tips for GDPR:

  • Decide what data to keep and what you need to destroy
  • Set a budget for a Data Protection Officer and oversee the appointment
  • Begin staff training to meet the requirements of the GDPR and to avoid data breaches

Charities: how to make sure your fundraisers hit the ground running

With the rise in popularity of fitness challenge events, attracting and retaining high value fundraisers has become increasingly competitive and beneficial for charities. But the influx of potential event participants can also expose them to additional risks and losses. They lose vital revenue with every deferment and dropout, so education, inspiration and motivation delivered regularly throughout the training journey is vital to ensure fundraisers reach the start line, successfully complete their event and collect donations.

Get Event Fit, a new resource for charity runners that is freely available from more than 100 participating charities, helps charities hoping to avoid significant numbers of dropouts and improve the fundraising experience for their supporters.

The app provides runners with resources that help them become fitter, stronger and better prepared for their event. Comprehensive programmes of running fitness, sports nutrition, mindset education and daily motivation are delivered into the Get Event Fit app to educate, inspire and motivate fundraisers every day throughout their training journey.

Cancer Research UK have collaborated with Get Event Fit ahead of their Tough 10 events to assist runners raising money for them with training and sponsorship advice delivered through the app.

Cancer Research UK’s Tough 10 is a series of epic 10k runs throughout September, October and November 2017. It’s not an obstacle course – instead this is the chance to take on some of the UK’s toughest terrain. Set in scenic locations such as the Peak District and Box Hill in Surrey, these events pitch brave participants against some of the UK’s most challenging runs,” says Clive Sanders, head of events at Cancer Research UK.

Sanders says the charity is excited to be working with Get Event Fit to test a new way of providing better communication with its event participants for Tough 10. “When our supporters sign up for a Cancer Research UK event, they are not only taking on a personal fitness challenge but are also doing something amazing by raising money for our life-saving research. That’s why we want to support them as much as possible with training advice as well as fundraising support, which Get Event Fit will enable us to do,” says Sanders.

Experts agree that preparation for any running event must involve more than simply improving physical fitness — effective, injury-free preparation requires strength and conditioning of the whole body with active recovery strategies, correct nutrition and a positive mindset.

“We provide free comprehensive running programmes for 5k, 10k, half marathon and full marathon events to fundraising runners – exclusively available from over 100 participating charities – so we’re very excited to now deliver custom Tough 10k event training through the Get Event Fit app in collaboration with Running with Us,” says Chris Mitchell, managing director of Get Event Fit.

“Instead of a typical PDF training guide, each Tough 10 runner can request a complete training programme consisting of: running fitness training, strength and conditioning exercise videos, yoga for runners, meditation, recovery, sports nutrition, healthy recipes, running mindset advice, motivational messages, information on Cancer Research UK and how fundraisers help save lives, Tough 10 event specific information and much more,” says Mitchell.

These training resources will be regularly delivered throughout the eight week training journey to help participants improve fitness, retain focus, stay motivated, fundraise and reduce the risk of injury through better event preparation.

For charities, Get Event Fit is really easy to use through an online dashboard. With only a few clicks, charities can schedule the automatic delivery of a complete training programme to one or hundreds of fundraisers.

Do you work for a charity? Learn more and request free Get Event Fit charity membership. Are you a runner? Learn more about Get Event Fit and find a participating charity.

Learn more about the Tough 10 training programmes with Get Event Fit and register for a Tough 10 event near you.

The Get Event Fit app provides runners with resources that help them become fitter, stronger and better prepared for their event. Photograph: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Source: Guardian Voluntary Sector Online

Stand Out From The Crowd For Funding Success

When it comes to grant funding, we’re all guilty of ploughing the same furrow, especially if it has reaped dividends in the past. It’s a tough funding environment, there are still £billions in grant funding available but there are over 165,000 other organisations in the voluntary sector vying for that same funding. To be successful you need to think about how to stand out from the crowd.

Understand the landscape your project operates in

We can all be a bit insular at times. We know why our organisation and the projects we work on are needed; after all we speak to our beneficiaries all the time, and we care about our work.

But do we regularly stop and give ourselves space to think about how our work fits into the wider external environment?

To make the most of funding opportunities we need to know the motivation behind them. Do your stakeholder analysis. Get to know:

  • funders who fund your type of projects. What are their aims and priorities right now?
  • what’s going on in your area – from your location to your part of the sector?
  • what are the needs of other local and/or similar organisations?
  • what are the hot topics that politicians and the media are talking about?

The environment around us is constantly changing. We need to know and understand the latest trends so we’re best placed to take advantage of them.

Visit the support and advice section on Funding Central for more information.

Match funding opportunities to your priorities – rather than the other way around

If we are honest, when times are tight we’ve all chased funding that probably wasn’t right. But let’s say it again and then again louder: don’t get distracted by funding that’s not right for your project. It’s going to waste a lot of your time and not really deliver on what’s important to your organisation (therefore your beneficiaries).

Your organisation has a vision, a mission and strategy for what you want to deliver, stick to that.

Of course you’ll want to explore new areas and projects but if they start falling outside your organisation’s scope then you need to have a fresh look at your strategy and see if it needs to change to help bring some focus.

Look for different types of funding opportunities

If you rely on one funder or one income stream, the effect of any changes to that income can be disastrous for your organisation and your beneficiaries. We know only too well that it’s hard work to replace funding for a project completely funded by one income stream.

Diversification is key to a sustainable future, so mix it up when it comes to income streams and to funders.