The Charity Commission for England and Wales is encouraging all charities to become members of voluntary sector umbrella bodies in a bid to increase self-reliance within the sector, Civil Society media revealed.

The move comes in light of harsh budget cuts facing the Commission which will see its funding drop by a third.
Dame Suzi Leather, Chair of the Charity Commission said that the move was aimed at boosting the profile of umbrella bodies who could take on the role of advisor currently held by the Commission: 

“There have been discussions about an umbrella support coalition of sector groups taking on an advice function that feeds off Charity Commission guidance. Then, we could deal with a limited number of umbrellas rather than 180,000 charities”.
The advice function provided by the Commission takes a variety of forms ranging from the provision of general resources and guidance to bespoke services for individual charities. As the Commission holds statutory powers, a central element of this advice function is to provide guidance on compliance with the law to charities.
The Commission’s Chief Executive, Sam Younger said that it would not be in a position to provide financial support to umbrella groups to take on this additional service but noted that increased membership would bring in additional financial resources.
Dame Suzi added that increased membership of umbrella bodies would bring benefit to both umbrella bodies and the Commission:
“It won’t happen overnight. But more membership means more income and more profile. In turn umbrellas could help us ensure that members do accounts on time”.
Some umbrella bodies have slammed the idea, criticising the Commission for expecting umbrella organisations to deal with the inevitable influx of advice queries from charities without any additional financial resources.
Karl Wilding, head of research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has argued that such a move will blur the boundaries of regulation:
“NCVO and other umbrellas should not become quasi-regulators: we’re not the charity police. It’s already the case that multiple overlapping regulation is a problem-so our direction of travel should be towards greater clarity and effectiveness of regulation.”

Many charities have also railed against the recommendations in light of the prospect of having to fork out membership fees to umbrella bodies. 

The Commission has backtracked somewhat on this move as a result of the ensuing criticism it recieved from the sector. In a recent article, Mr Younger stated the Commission was not trying to push the role of regulator onto umbrella bodies:

“We have absolutely no intention of asking umbrella bodies to ‘regulate’ thier members. We have no plans to pass on those core duties or responsibilities to others.”

The Commission has softened its approach in light of the criticism, insisting that it is not forcing charities to join umbrella bodies. Instead, Younger stated that the Commission will merely be promoting umbrella bodies on the Commission’s website.

The charity sector in England and Wales is regulated by the Charity Commission, an independent body which seeks to ensure that charities work effectively. The Commission monitors compliance with charity law and acts on cases of abuse and bad practice. Most charities must register with the commission prior to operation.
Ireland has a long way to go in terms of reaching these standards of charity regulation. Steps have been made to revamp the sector with the enactment of the Charities Act 2009 but the provisions set out are yet to be actively implemented.

Sources: (23/09/10) ‘Charity Commission expects all charities to loin an umbrella.’ (28/09/11) ‘Charities should not be strong-armed into joining umbrella bodies.’ (27/10/11) ‘Commission website will promote umbrella bodies, says Younger.’

Sophie O’Brien

Communications Officer, Boardmatch Ireland