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Safeguarding concerns a “wake-up call” for charity sector

The voluntary sector must meet its current challenges head on and provide greater transparency in order to retain public trusts, delegates at the Charity Regulation Conference were told.

The event coincided with a turbulent time for the charity sector, with recent revelations raising serious concerns about safeguarding standards at a number of high profile organisations.

“This is a really important conference today, and we must view it in the context of what is happening in the voluntary sector,” said event chair Chris Sherwood, chief executive officer of Relate.

 “In this difficult climate the test for us as a sector is how we respond to this increased scrutiny, do we hide our heads in the sand or do we tackle them head on.”

A recent report by the Charity Commission revealed that safeguarding concerns featured in 302 regulatory compliance cases in 2016/17, up from 163 the year before.

“I don’t think the sector is in crisis, I think we’ve been battered by a number of public concerns and probably rightly so,” said keynote speaker Sir Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

“Recent revelations of abuse have shocked the sector and the public at large. Our priority must be to get to the heart of what went wrong, to support the victims and to do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“I would say that it’s a wake-up call. I think charities have to think very seriously about the systems they have in place and whether they’re protecting both their staff and their beneficiaries.”

This extra scrutiny comes at a time when the sector’s executive pay and fundraising practices have also been called into question. While Sir Etherington aggress that charities should not compete on salary with private businesses, he argues that charities have to invest in strong leadership in order to deliver safe and efficient services.

“I think you’ve got to pay for good leaders. We pay nowhere near what other sectors pay, particularly the private sector, so there is a salary sacrifice that goes on,” he said.

“The important issue is that boards, which are essentially setting these packages, not only reflect on the total amounts of money but have a way of explaining how they’ve arrived at the number. Who have they compared with?

“I think if you can be transparent about that then you are well on your way to reaching the salary levels that can attract the leaders that we need.

“Just being a charity is not enough, people want more assurance that the money is being spent well. Trust is difficult to earn, easy to lose and impossible to win back.”

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