Baroness Tina Stowell is set to leave the Charity Commission at the end of this month
The outgoing chair of the Charity Commission has used one of her final speeches to urge charities to “stop picking sides”.
Baroness Tina Stowell spoke at a virtual event held by the think tank The Social Market Foundation this week, in what is likely to be one of her final engagements as her three-year term in the post at the English and Welsh regulator comes to an end.
In the speech, Stowell - a former Conservative Party staffer and activist who once sought a Tory parliamentary nomination - said that organisations should refrain from actions that can fuel division.
She said: “Charities can challenge things, charities can shake things up, they can even change the world, but they can’t, and they shouldn’t go out of their way to divide people.
“If charity is to remain at the forefront of our national life it cannot afford to be captured by those who want to advance or defend their own view of the world to the exclusion of all others. Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight.
“Many seek out charities as an antidote to politics and division not as another front on which to wage a war against political enemies, and they have the right to be respected. Telling these people that they’ll get a fair hearing if they object to the politicisation of their favourite charities or if they take a different view is not in itself a political act; it is the role of a responsible regulator.
“Hard as it may be to believe sometimes, away from Westminster or beyond the reach of Twitter, there are people who do not have definitive opinions, ready for instant expression about Brexit, the root causes of inequality, the exercise and limits of free speech, or how best to tell the story of Britain. They are the backbone of so many of our charities. They let their donations, their volunteering, their fundraising do the talking. Just because these people do not shout doesn’t mean they have no right to be heard. I have tried to make their views count more during my time at the Charity Commission, I hope and believe my successor will do the same.”
She said the sector needs to embrace a new generation of organisations with their own ideas for strengthening their communities and wider society, and that by working together organisations “can all help to improve lives and strengthen society within the legal framework of charitable status”.
Stowell said Covid-19 had brought home the power of charity and its fragility, and that she had taken on the role when public trust in the sector was at “its lowest level ever”.
She said: “I applied and was appointed chair of the Charity Commission because I could see that erosion in public trust and confidence had begun to reach parts of the charity world too. Household names not behaving as they should; putting their own reputations ahead of doing the right thing and not recognising their broader responsibility to charity as a whole. At that time, public trust and confidence in charity was at its lowest level ever.
“Some organised voices opposed my appointment because of my lack of experience and understanding when it came to the charity world. But that was a feature not a bug. I wasn’t there to plead the case for charities to the public, but to make sure that a broader range of voices from the public were taken seriously by charities, especially the large and more established. And to do so because charity matters – and it relies on everyone’s support.”
The government is expected to appoint an interim to the role when Stowell’s term expires at the end of the month.
Stowell was appointed as the Charity Commission’s chair in 2018 despite a unanimous parliamentary select committee recommendation that her nomination should be rejected on the grounds that she lacked experience of both charity and regulatory roles.