It could still be a while before last orders in charities’ last chance saloon

The front pages of the national newspapers make unhappy reading for charities this morning, with renewed parliamentary criticism of the fundraising tactics of many of the biggest players in the third sector.

The Public Administration Committee has concluded that aggressive fundraising methods have damaged the reputations of some of the biggest charities and the sector as a whole. And, which will be of equal concern to the sector, MPs and ministers have made it clear they expect action or else charities can expect regulation to be imposed on them.

The content of the Select Committee’s report shouldn’t come as a galloping shock. As we’ve noted previously, charities now exist in a ‘new normal.’ With swingeing cuts to public sector spending, charities have been left to provide services that have been curtailed at local and national levels by a tightening of the purse strings. But despite a greater reliance of charities and their service provision, there’s also been far greater scrutiny of their operations. This is particularly true in cases where third sector organisations are the recipients of public money, and just as ministers expect value from public services, so they have the same expectations of charities.

Meanwhile, the media is prepared to be more critical of charities than at any point previously.

Many of the headlines involving charities over the past year have been far from flattering. Some have been quite damning in their narration of charities’ operations, particularly in soliciting funds from members of the public. But it would be churlish to think this means systematic failings across the board. The majority of charities are impeccably run and the models of good governance. The lesson of the past year in particular – as we’ve also noted before – is that it’s no longer just about the good charities do. It’s also about how they go about their business, and the internal oversight they have in place.

The consequence of today’s report is that the Government is more willing than at any point previously to introduce statutory regulation to ensure ethical fundraising. But this threat needs to be kept in perspective. The charity sector’s self-regulation will need time to impose itself. And there are numerous examples – in the media and in healthcare amongst others – where the Government has shown itself to be unwilling to impose regulation if it can be absolutely avoided.

So talk of the ‘last chance saloon’ for charities is perhaps premature. The new press regulator has been establishing itself over the past year, and there seems little impetus for statutory regulation. We may well see a similar outcome for charities.