Here to help: the Charity Commission’s commitment to pandemic recovery

Barclays welcomed Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive Officer of the Charity Commission, as our first guest of our 2021 In Conversation events. Helen outlined the Commission’s priorities for this year, and shared her invaluable insights on how the sector is faring under the pandemic.

A lifeline for many

Without a doubt, charities have continued to make a vital contribution to public life, with many people touched by their work for the first time. Whether household names or new organisations launched in response to Covid-19, they’re key to helping society recover from the pandemic.

Helen explained that it could be many more months or even years before the full impact of the pandemic on the shape and size of the sector becomes clear.

The Commission has had its own Covid-related challenges, but its fundamental principles remain paramount: to put public interest at the heart of everything it does, and promote public trust and confidence.

Every concern raised about a charity continues to be heard and treated with respect. At the same time, the Commission is providing charities with user-friendly, effective and efficient services and support.

Open for business

Helen emphasised that the Commission remains very much open for business - its Bootle contact centre has been operating every working day since Covid-19 hit, helping more than 43,000 customers since March 2020. They aim to help charities to be as resilient as possible, fulfilling their vital role of helping the country get back on its feet.

The commission has strengthened its handling of whistleblowing reports, and charities can now report serious incidents online. Vital information is provided up front, reducing protracted correspondence and streamlining initial assessments and responses.

Where charities have had to change their objectives during the pandemic the Commission has responded quickly. It has prioritised registration applications from organisations responding to the pandemic, and temporarily permitted some charities to postpone their annual reporting deadline.

The Commission has also been recruiting additional expertise in key areas such as intelligence, policy, communications and investigations, in order to proactively assess risks facing the sector and target interventions with maximum impact.

International charities have been supported virtually through one-to-one digital meetings and a programme of bespoke webinars covering a range of topics, such as operations, due diligence checks and managing corruption and bribery risks.

Role of trustees

The Commission is working hard to help demystify the role of trustees, by offering guidance through a series of five-minute guides^ covering the ‘core syllabus’ of charity management and what trustees are expected to know.

In order to make informed decisions, charities would benefit from more diverse trustee boards comprising people with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Helen recommended charities should always run formal trustee recruitment processes and ensure a diverse range of people have the opportunity to apply. They should also explore innovative ways of encouraging and helping more people to gain vital governance experience as potential new board members.

Pandemic impact

While some charities report they have seen income increase dramatically, many more are grappling with significant reductions. The impact of Covid-19 has clearly been different for each charity, and Helen stressed that while it’s too early to identify firm trends or conclusions, funding is undoubtedly a major challenge.

Reports suggested that charities received £800m more in donations in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. However, overall donations fell in the second half of the year. Charities reliant on traditional fundraising methods have seen their income reduced significantly, making the government’s furlough scheme a lifeline for many.

We also discussed the way in which the pandemic has changed people’s relationship with cash. Barclays figures show that the majority of transactions are now digital, so being able to accept small donations by card or accept card payments in shops instead of cash is becoming essential to maintain future income.

While the Commission has seen difficult issues arising in charities during the pandemic, Helen has been impressed by examples of charities’ innovation and collaboration, and their accelerated adoption of digital fundraising and service delivery during the pandemic. It will be important to hold on to those changes when life returns to relative normality.

How we can help

A number of the themes covered in our conversation are explored in our new report, Reshaped by the Pandemic – the way forward for charities, which showcases how charities are adapting to change.

It includes case studies on adopting technology, new ways of working, service delivery and collaboration and some great examples of how charities are adapting operationally and digitally, while looking after their staff.

We’ve also launched our Eagle Labs charity tech project to showcase new technologies and provide access to business expertise, networking opportunities and new innovations. Click here^ to find out more.

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