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Posted 3 July 2017

The Charity Commission Public Meeting in a Nutshell

Last week, I made the journey to Cardiff City Stadium to attend the Charity Commission Public Meeting. Here is my nutshell coverage of the event.

In true conference fashion, I was warmly greeted by a member of staff from the Commission who immediately directed me to the coffee. The venue was impressive, with a view of the pitch where (I am told) many footballing greats have appeared. The event boasted a large turnout, which was clearly appreciated by the Commission.

“Our duty is to regulate, but we want to make it easy for charities to comply”

Following a welcome by William Shawcross, David Holdsworth, Chief Operating Officer started things off with a talk about the digital transformation of the Commission. The first change will be the new annual return service that is due to launch on 31st August this year along with an assisted digital support helpline. This is just one of several updates on the horizon – many of which will be linked to the introduction of the new digital portal. In 2018, the Commission wish to focus on how they can streamline the use of information already held by them. The portal will therefore enable users to store trustee details (saving the need to re-file the same details year after year), a 24-hour change of name service, an application ‘track-process’ function and a quicker, more efficient amendment to governing document function.

David also impressed that the Commission’s website is the second most visited government platform in the country, beaten only by HMRC. He said that charities should not consider the annual return and trustee-reporting process as cumbersome – instead, they should utilise the platform by considering it as free marketing and treat it as their opportunity promote their hard work.

“Who is happy to share with us something they are ashamed of?”

David Teague of the ICO certainly fulfilled the first rule of public speaking by having an ear-catching opening. The above question left us all looking at each other with a sacrificial-type “please let it be you, not me” gaze. Luckily, David was not expecting an answer. Instead, he wanted to highlight that personal information is just that – personal.

He pointed out that in a modern world we increasingly hear about laptops being left of trains or data breaches caused by hacking. As a result, we are less confident in sharing our information, despite the rising prevalence to do so.

David shared the ICO 5 tips for charities on data protection that can be found here and called a lack of understanding the “banana skin of risk”. He also stressed that the ICO are not interested in human error in terms of enforcement. They are interested in organisational measures, technical measures and awareness. The reason being that if policies and attention are focused on these three areas, this correlates with a reduced margin for human error. In light of the GDPR in particular, this should be a key focus for charities whatever their size.

David was also keen to share the ICO are willing to perform free half-hour visits to organisations to conduct a data protection analysis.  These are not followed up or kept on file by the ICO, but instead acts as a tool to help you identify problem areas.

How many of you wake up and leap out of bed thinking “I must read some Charity Commission guidance today”

Following a quick dash to the buffet, Nick Mott, Deputy Head of Guidance and Practice, started his talk by asking the above question. Unsurprisingly, only three or so hands went up (one of which belonged to Mr Shawcross). What was more surprising was that when asked, “who has read the Charity Commission guidance titles The Essential Trustee”, only half of those who had identified themselves as trustees raised their hands. Why is readership of guidance so low amongst trustees?

The Commission confess that its predecessors – which were lengthy and ineffective, have tarnished the reputation of their guidance. We are assured however that that the days of 100-page guidance to on a single subject matter have come to an end. Instead, they have developed a much more accessible “dip, swim or jump” system of guidance, which will allow any trustee to obtain the knowledge they need to perform their role effectively, irrespective of time constraints. Whether it be dipping your toe into a pool of infographs and practical guides; or diving head first into an in-depth legal analysis. His point is that there is something for everyone and so guidance should not be feared. Information is also available through social media and, despite navigational difficulties on the website, the Portal and other digital transformations should make guidance easy to find.

He closed by summarising that the Commission do not expect trustees to be perfect, but they are expected to do their best to comply with charity law. My conclusion of his talk was that as guidance becomes easier to access, the expectation to read it will become greater. As such, they are aiming do away with the ‘poor guidance’ defence to a breach of duty. I would therefore urge readers to at least dip into what is available.

Spoiler alert: the guidance on reporting a serious incident will be updated shortly so keep your eyes peeled.

Filling the skills gap

Finally, we participated in a group activity lead by Rosie Stokes and Tim Reese. We were each divided into tables and asked to write down what the three most important skills that a trustee should hold and how a charity could fill the skills gap in these areas. Our table was varied in terms of background, with trustees from the Scouts, the Rhondda Tunnel Society and the CVS, as well as a charities consultant, to name only a few. Tables were then asked to share their answers. Financial skills came out on top, with nearly every table listing it as a top three skill. Other skills were a passion and interest for the charity, management, HR and integrity. When looking at how to fill the gaps, some said that they had been successful when using advertising via social media, others suggesting co-opting provisions and networking. The discussion was insightful, with Tim highlighting that skills such as legal need not be obtained through trusteeship, but instead trustees should be open to seeking professional advice when needed.

For me, however, networking was the champion of the day – mainly as one delegate announced that they had been convinced to become a trustee over lunch!

Thank you to the Charity Commission for hosting this free event. It should definitely be an annual date in the diary for trustees and I would definitely recommend it to my charity clients.

If you require specialist advice, please do not hesitate to contact our team of charity solicitors.

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