Building the nation’s trust – connecting a charity’s work to its purpose

The Charity Commission focuses on charities meeting “public expectation”, but they also need to remain true to their stated purpose, even when doing so may prove controversial.

A report on our colonial past

The National Trust has acted in accordance with its charitable objects. This shouldn’t be headline news, but it has been for the last six months. This suggests there is still work to be done by the charity sector to provide a stronger narrative about the work charities do and the value they provide to society, especially at this time.

Many readers will already be familiar with the basic facts. Last September the National Trust published an interim report “on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery.” Elements of the charity’s membership, of the press and of parliament decried the Trust’s alleged entry into the culture wars, in a move to trash our nation’s past. The now former Chair of the Charity Commission wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph advising the National Trust not to 'lose sight' of what members expected and Oliver Dowden has recently summoned the heads of heritage organisations to his office for a chat.

On reading the (115 page) report one wonders how many people have done likewise. Commissioned almost a year before widespread Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the toppling of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, it’s a carefully researched, fact-based, piece of academic work, setting out the colonial and slavery context of properties within the Trust’s estate.

Yes, the entry for Chartwell does refer to Winston Churchill’s opposition to the Government of India Act in 1935 which granted India a degree of self-governance and mentions that he was Prime Minister during the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943. This accounts for two paragraphs in the whole report.

But if this fact had been omitted, wouldn’t the Trust have been accused of whitewashing history? The report refers to the description of Churchill’s life by leading historians as “exceptionally long, complex and controversial”– but that isn’t news and doesn’t diminish him as a historic figure or as a great leader. And what some strident headlines have omitted to mention is that the report highlights those historic figures connected with the Trust’s properties who supported, as well as opposed, the movement for the abolition of slavery, such as Lord Castlereagh, whose family seat was Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland.

What did the Charity Commission decide?

On concluding its compliance case the Charity Commission concluded that there were no grounds for regulatory action against the National Trust.

Its trustees were able to demonstrate that they had explicitly considered and determined that commissioning and publishing the report was compatible with its charitable purposes. They had recognised and carefully considered the potential negative reaction that could result from the report’s publication, having consulted with a panel of 2,000 members before commissioning the research.

The closest the Commission comes to any criticism of the charity is to suggest a possible lack of foresight in pre-empting the extent of the reaction to the report and for not having done more to clearly explain the link between the report and the Trust’s purpose.

Indeed, the historic interest of the Trust’s lands, buildings and property are central to its charitable purposes:

The preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and, as regards lands, for the preservation (as far as practicable) of their natural aspect, features and animal and plant life. Also the preservation of furniture, pictures and chattels of any description having national and historic or artistic interest.

As the Trust’s Director-General Hilary McGrady has explained in her recent blog post about the interim report, the charity takes a “Retain and Explain” approach to history, “ look at an aspect of history that is there in many of the places we care for… places that should help curious people come face to face with history and feel they can arrive at their own views…”

The fact is that history isn’t just about beautiful architecture, although that’s certainty part of it and this brings to mind the immortal words of Orson Welles’ character in “The Third Man”:

“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The foreword to the Trust’s interim report speaks of culture helping us forge an important, critical commonality, the sort of shared understanding that is important to healthy societies.

An advocate as well as a regulator for the charity sector?

While the Charity Commission’s mission in recent years has been to increase public trust and confidence in charities with a focus on paying due regard to “public expectation”, without seeking to patronise anyone, who is currently assuming the task of educating the public about what charities actually do, of explaining that charities aren’t “gentle” or fluffy and shouldn’t just “stick to their knitting”, as one long-forgotten Government Minister put it a number of years ago, but should continue to push the boundaries in looking to change the world, as they have done for centuries?

In a footnote the interim report explains that in 2017 the National Trust marked 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality with its Prejudice and Pride programme, and remarks that although supported by many, a vocal minority felt threatened by what it saw as an unwelcome departure from the narratives to which they had become accustomed.

Undoubtedly in normal times many of us value the opportunity to have a coffee and a slice of cake in the magnificent grounds of National Trust properties, but we need to understand that the Trust is advancing its charitable purposes and fulfilling its mandate by providing the historical context of those properties, helping us to answer the question how we all got to where we are now.

There has been talk of a body to assume the role of advocate for the charity sector, to provide a realistic and compelling narrative for the breadth and quality of charities’ work, in explaining that to plug the gaps which state provision and private endeavour can’t fill you cannot always rely upon a group of volunteers with sporadic and inadequate funding always to deliver a professional level of performance. And that you can’t necessarily expect an organisation to have a coherent, long-term, strategy if you don’t fund its core costs and if you make it apply for funding each year for the coming one.

Until someone takes responsibility for that narrative, every charity and its trustees must continue to tell their own story, explaining to all stakeholders how they use the support they receive to advance their charitable purposes every day.

There has been a spate of Supreme Court rulings and important regulatory investigations and decisions from the Charity Commission in the last six months. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees and so we will be looking to draw out some key messages for charity trustees from those decisions at our forthcoming two-part webinar, to be held on 21st and 28th April 2021 and for which you can register here.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


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