Speech at Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales

Good morning all.

I am delighted to be taking part in ICAEW’s annual charity event, which brings together such an important group of finance professionals to share ideas, learn, and connect. The roles you hold and the organisations you work for may vary. But each one of you plays a crucial part in keeping the wheels of this remarkable sector turning.

As it’s the start of a new year, and I’m now nine months into my term as Chair of the Commission, I’d like to do two things.

First, I’d like to share my reflections on the months since April last year, when I joined the Commission, and then I’d like to look ahead, setting out the principles of my vision for the Commission during my term of office, and say a little about our concrete priorities for 2023.

My time as Chair so far has, of course, coincided with an extraordinarily difficult period for many charities. I said last March, during my pre-appointment hearing in Parliament, that the rising cost of living was my greatest concern for the sector, and I’m afraid that hasn’t changed, far from it.

The energy crisis, and the resulting increase in the cost of living, is forcing many who were once able to make ends meet to seek the help of charities. At the same time, and as you will know all too well, charities themselves are reeling from sky rocketing bills, and there are understandable fears that, in time, donations too will be squeezed, as people across the country tighten their belts.

During my first few months as Chair, I’ve had the privilege of visiting charities across England and Wales. This has given me a real sense of the acute need for charitable support among so many people, and the difference charities are making in relieving that need.

Last month, I visited a charity in Manchester that has seen a nearly ten-fold increase in demand for its services. Visits to the charity’s three food clubs have risen from 250 a week at the start of the pandemic, to 2,000 a week now.

Similarly, I went to see a Bristol charity, which among other activities runs an advice line for people struggling with their energy bills. It won’t surprise you to hear that the charity last year saw a record spike in calls – in 2021-22 they fielded 25,000 enquiries from over 15,000 people. Tendency: rising.

I have no doubt that the burden of responding to the current pressures falls especially heavily upon your shoulders as finance professionals. Especially those of you working in-house. Your mettle may well be tested in the months ahead, as you demonstrate yet again the crucial importance of intelligent, prudent, purpose-driven, financial planning and management. Your work is your charity’s engine room, providing the fuel and energy required to deliver for your beneficiaries.

This work is of course always important. But ensuring that charities use their resources wisely will become ever more crucial as this economic crisis unfolds.

As donors and supporters feel the pinch, their expectations of efficiency and effectiveness in charities is only going to increase. Charities, I expect, will come under ever more intense scrutiny as to how they set their priorities, how they use their resources, and the difference they make.

One crucial answer to this, which you contribute to directly, is transparency, notably around financial matters. You play a key role in ensuring your charities report accurately, clearly, in line with requirements and in a way that promotes public understanding and confidence.

While the Commission as regulator cannot directly resolve charities’ financial pressures, we are determined that we do whatever we can within the limits of our statutory purposes to support charities at this time.

Just before Christmas, we released new guidance on responding to the cost-of-living crisis. This doesn’t impose any new rules or legal principles, instead it brings together relevant existing guidance in a format that we hope trustees will find easy to access and navigate.

My hope and expectation is that, supported by your expertise and professionalism, and with a watchful, supportive Commission, charities will rise to this challenge.

Again and again charities have demonstrated resilience, the determination to bounce back from challenge, and the ingenuity to respond to new or changing need. This was very evident during the Covid crisis, in response to the war in Ukraine, and we’re seeing it again now.

I’ve been impressed with the dedication and passion I’ve seen in the many charities I’ve visited or met over the past 9 months, and a hardnosed realism, a recognition that sometimes, fulfilling your core purpose faithfully, means doing something new or different. The charities I’ve come into contact with have varied enormously in their size, and type of operation, but they have all had in common an iron focus on the needs of the people they were set up to help and support.

So while the outlook is in some ways bleak for many charities, I am not pessimistic. My mood is one, instead, of cautious optimism.

Not least because I have also seen first-hand how determined those working at the Charity Commission are to support and strengthen the sector.


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