Woke charity bosses have been warned by the regulator that they must not push “their own world view and outlook” through their organisations in the wake of the National Trust’s Churchill row.
Helen Stephenson, the chief executive of the Charity Commission, said that organisations needed to be “alive to the wide range of legitimate views” among their supporters and ensure that their actions furthered the charitable aims, not the opinions of their bosses.
Her comments at the regulator’s annual meeting come amid growing concern that charities are being used to push the “woke agenda” of their leaders rather than using public money for its intended purpose.
The commission examined the actions of the National Trust after complaints about its report linking Winston Churchill to slavery, and opened a case into the Runnymede Trust after it launched an attack on the Government’s race report.
Both charities were cleared of breaking charity law and the commission faced criticism for examining cases which it was argued were politically motivated.
Ms Stephenson acknowledged that “some of our recent compliance work has involved controversial, sensitive issues. Issues that might broadly be described as relating to ‘culture wars’.”
But she warned: “Let me use this opportunity to be absolutely clear: the commission does not, and must not, examine people’s world views or ideologies before deciding whether they have a right to have their concerns examined by us.”
Trustees must ensure their decisions and priorities are driven by their charity’s aims, said Helen Stephenson
She said that they will “always take concerns raised with us seriously” and take action if needed.
“Public debate in our society feels increasingly divided,” she told the virtual meeting. “It sometimes seems we can’t even agree to disagree.
“So it is vital that regulators like the commission steer a clear-headed, steady course through sensitive issues …
“It’s also important that charities themselves are alive to the wide range of legitimate views and sensibilities that exist within the public on whose support they ultimately rely.
“This doesn’t mean avoiding controversy or difficult issues.
“But trustees must ensure their decisions and priorities are driven by their charity’s aims. Not by their own world view and outlook.”
When asked how they avoided attempts at politicisation, Ms Stephenson emphasised that it is “really important that the sector as a whole doesn’t become polemic and say you can listen to this person but not that criticism”.
Winston Churchill outside Chartwell
Credit: Hans Wild/The Life Picture Collection
Explaining the work of the Commission over the past year, she said that they had opened 59 new statutory inquiries and used regulatory powers on over 2,000 occasions.
The number of whistleblower complaints increased by 75 per cent on the previous year to 431 reports, which she welcomed but noted they may indicate “growing pressures” on boards.
The Commission has already carried out research into the impact of Covid-19, which will be published shortly and has shown that smaller charities were worst impacted, with one in four pausing their work completely during the first lockdown.
It is also said to demonstrate the “resilience” of the sector which has “seen fewer charities fail” than predicted. In total, 97 charities reported that they were insolvent, up by a third on the previous year.
But Ms Stephenson noted that for many, including those who had relied on their reserves to weather the pandemic, the most difficult times are yet to come.
“We have already seen an increase in disputes in charities,” she said. “We expect that may continue.
“As you face difficult decisions about how to adapt your charity’s work to changing times, be alive to the risk of disagreements escalating. Don’t place being right ahead of doing the right thing.”