Helen Stephenson CBE opens this year's CFG Annual Conference.
Helen Stephenson, CEO of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, got CFG’s Annual Conference off to a flying start with a presentation on the regulator’s work during the Covid-19 crisis and what it sees as the priorities for the regulator going forwards.
Commenting on the “crucial contribution that charities make locally, nationally and internationally”, Stephenson looked at the effect of the pandemic on the sector, noting that around one quarter of the smallest charities (those with income under £10,000) stopped all services during the lockdown. She noted that the sector’s resilience had been tested and that the hardest times still lay ahead for some.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Stephenson also praised charities for adapting rapidly and pivoting services at the start of the lockdown and noted that the failure and dissolution rate increase of one third was not as high as the Commission would have expected.
Much of Stephenson’s presentation focused on the issue of public trust. Stephenson explained: "The public expect that charities make a positive difference, they expect them to spend a high proportion of funds on the end cause, and they expect charities to live their values and show them not just in what they do, but in how they behave along the way. Now, that’s simple to understand if not easy to live up to.”
Stephenson remarked that “charity finance professionals, along with trustees, play a crucial role in meeting these [public] expectations " and cited research that shows that the pandemic has increased public trust, saying that although the increase is small it is significant.
“You have a role in ensuring that decisions about spending are purpose-driven, effective and efficient and you can help to ensure you charity is measuring and reporting on the difference it makes.”
Public expectations were revisited again during the Q&A session, when Stephenson made it clear that the role of the regulator remains as an independent body that “will not and should not judge the world views of the people who raise concerns with us”.
Reiterating the views expressed on the Commission’s blog, Stephenson remained clear that the Commission will continue to take seriously any complaints raised with the regulator and handle them transparently and fairly.
She added that where the regulator “finds wrongdoing we will deal with that and help trustees to get back on course, and where we find wrongdoing we will say so. So, our job is to chart a very clear course through some of these challenging issues, we’re not here to judge but to regulate charity against the charity law framework.”
Data and reporting
Stephenson’s presentation also focused on the Commission’s role in using and collating data and set out the Commission’s vision of using data to achieve three distinct aims:
- To ensure the public has access to information that helps them to make informed choices about the charities they want to support.
- To ensure the Commission holds the data and information it needs to identify risks, trends and potential problems or wrongdoings in charities.
- To drive positive behaviour through reporting.
Stephenson reminded attendees that the importance of reporting should not be underestimated, stating that the Commission is due to embark on a fundamental review of the data collected from charities and how it can be used once collated.
“As finance professionals, you may think that only a relatively narrow group of people are ever interested in reading a charity’s accounts, but our evidence at the Commission suggests not,” stated Stephenson.
“Since we launched the new register, charities’ accounts have been downloaded over 970,000 times. So my plea to you is this – see your annual accounts and reports as not just a requirement but as an opportunity, a chance to put your best foot forward.”
Stephenson said that the Commission will directly communicate with the sector about its review and that there would be a future consultation that would involve charities and sector bodies such as CFG. Reporting of pensions benefits deficits was one area that required improvement.
During the Q&A session, Stella Smith, CFG trustee and chair of the opening plenary, asked Stephenson how charities can juggle the increasing demands to deliver to the frontline whilst also meeting regulatory expectations.
Stephenson was clear that during the pandemic the regulator looked to reduce burden where it could, citing the extended deadline for reporting as one such example. She was also clear that the regulator sees its role as supporting charities in the work they do, and pointed to the recent work the Commission has done to support trustees in their roles.
Stephenson closed her presentation by thanking finance professional and experts in the sector for their hard work.
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