Helen Stephenson's final speech as Charity Commission CEO

Helen Stephenson addresses gofod3 event

 Dame Helen Stephenson

I am delighted to be with you all today and to be attending gofod3 for the first time in person. Thank you to WCVA and all those who have played a part in putting on this event.

Two years ago I spoke at your online festival, which was a great way to connect with people during the pandemic years – but being here today reminds us of the huge value there is in seeing each other face-to-face and sharing ideas and insights.

This is a particularly notable occasion for me, as it is my final public event as CEO of the Charity Commission. After seven years, I will shortly be handing over the baton to a new CEO – but I am pleased to have this final chance to share some personal reflections from my time at the Commission.

General election guidance

As you will be aware, we are meeting today in the middle of general election campaign. Although the Charity Commission is an independent regulator, we are subject to the same pre-election restrictions on civil service activity that apply to the wider government, so I hope you will understand that in my remarks today I will be avoiding anything that could potentially be seen as politically sensitive.

I don’t think it’s controversial, however, to state that a general election provides an opportunity for many charities to draw attention to their causes. In doing so, it is important charities follow the rules on political activity and campaigning.

The Commission has dedicated guidance to help charities get it right, available through our general election page on Gov.uk – and I’d encourage all trustees to carefully look at it before deciding whether and how to get involved in this election campaign.

Role of the Commission

This will be the 43rd general election that has taken place since the Charity Commission was established in 1853 – a reminder of the remarkable longevity of the Commission, and of the system of independent regulation of charities in England and Wales.

Indeed, the Commission is amongst the oldest regulators in continuous operation anywhere in the world. So although I am proud to be its longest-serving CEO, I am reminded that my tenure is a relatively small part of the Commission’s long journey and an even smaller part of the long history of voluntary action in Wales and England

The Commission has what I consider to be a special role, which in turn reflects the unique place of charity in our society. Our role is to uphold the covenant of trust that exists between Parliament, the public and charities.

Charities rightly hold a privileged place in society and in the law. That place can only be justified if the public have trust and confidence in what charity is. Central to that trust and confidence is independent regulation.

When I first joined the Commission, public confidence in the sector had recently been rocked by some high-profile scandals. I am pleased that, since then, our research shows that trust in charities has largely recovered – and I am grateful that my tenure has overlapped with several moments in which we have seen the best of the sector, not least of all during the pandemic.

But it is still the case that the actions of just one charity can have a negative influence on the public’s perception of all other charities. Trust is hard earned and easily lost. The work of a charity ultimately relies on public trust and goodwill – which in turn rests on it delivering against its purpose in a way that is true to its values.

That is why the Commission’s role as independent regulator of the sector is so important, and why we take a fair and balanced approach in supporting charities to get it right whilst taking robust action where we see wrongdoing and harm.

So the core purpose of the Commission – to ensure the public can support charities with confidence – has remained unchanged throughout our 170-year history. But how we achieve that purpose and deliver our ambition has continuously evolved.

Balance of regulation

Across time there have undoubtedly been periods in which the Commission’s priority focus has been seen to be more on enforcement, and others where it has been more on support for trustees. That swing is not unique to charity regulation – we see it in many sectors.

In my view this is an unhelpful, false dichotomy. If I’ve sought to achieve one thing during my time as CEO it has been to cement within the Commission a culture that recognises both support and robust enforcement are necessary poles of our work which should attract equal amounts of regulatory energy and investment.

Charities are run by volunteer trustees who need and deserve our active guidance and support in understanding their legal duties and doing the best job they can. And public trust and confidence and the overall health of the sector requires that the Commission takes unflinching action when we come across the deliberate or reckless abuse of charities.

The Commission has done a huge amount over the past seven years to strengthen both aspects of our work:

  • Overhauling our online guidance to trustees and developing effective campaigns to help ensure trustees see and access that guidance.
  • Investing in technology that over time will allow us a direct digital connection with every single trustee.
  • Ensuring we use the enforcement powers Parliament has granted us without fear or favour.
  • Holding publicly to account those charities where things have gone badly wrong.
  • But also being clear when charities have been subject to wrong or unfair public criticism.

I am proud of this legacy and delighted that the Commission’s new five-year strategy cements this balance into the foundations of our work into the years ahead.

Our work in Wales

I am also pleased that one of my legacies will be our improved footprint in Wales.

The Commission has always taken seriously its responsibilities as a two-nation regulator, serving the people of Wales and England. But I wanted us to do more to step up our engagement with the sector in Wales, recognising its distinct characteristics.

We have made real progress over the past few years:

  • Our presence in Wales is growing – we have increased the size of our Newport office and have additional staff joining soon.
  • We’ve taken steps to improve and be more consistent with our Welsh language offer – recognising our responsibilities as a bilingual organisation.
  • We have increased our engagement with key Welsh stakeholders, including WCVA – and I am sure that will continue under new leadership in both organisations.
  • We’ve made an effort to be more visible in Wales. Both our Chair and myself have visited a number of charities across Wales, and earlier this year we brought our whole Board here for a series of events around Cardiff and Newport. Two years ago we were delighted to hold our Annual Public Meeting at this very venue.

This has not just been for show, but has led to real improvements in our knowledge of the sector in Wales and our ability to support it.

One example of this is the success of our Revitalising Trusts programme, which is working to identify charitable funds that have been lying dormant – perhaps because a charity has ceased operating or the funds have simply been forgotten about. Thanks to this project we have been able to revitalise nearly £10 million of charitable funds in Wales and ensure that money is put towards good causes.

In one case, we were able to work with a Welsh charity that had held £1 million in investments for over 10 years. Our team engaged with the trustees and helped them put in place plans to make use of the funds – resulting in a significant donation to a local hospital project. 

On a personal note, I have always greatly enjoyed visiting charities in Wales and spending time with trustees, staff and volunteers here. Many charities in Wales are small, local organisations who are firmly embedded in their communities.

Visiting these charities feels like you are spending time in the heart of the community, with people who have dedicated much of their lives to serving it. It has been one of the great pleasures of my time at the Commission to see such wonderful examples of the best of civil society.

Role charities in society

Throughout my time at the Commission it’s been clear that the role, value and importance of charities in our society is continuing to rise.

The difference charities make in our communities and all of our lives is immeasurable, and it is growing.

Many social and cultural touch points in our lives, cradle to grave, are offered or curated by charity. We are a society built on a strong symbiosis of state, market, and the charitable sector. And – crucially – this now appears to be an accepted and indeed celebrated facet of our national life. We should welcome this consensus on the central role of charities.

I’ve been involved in charities from almost all possible perspectives for a long time.  As a volunteer as a charity leader myself, from the vantage point of government, as a funder, donor, and latterly as regulator.

I’ve seen charities achieve the impossible through their good work. And I’ve seen charities get it badly wrong.

And when I reflect on what it is that makes the difference between a charity that succeeds and one that gets lost along the way, it is this: a great charity is one whose trustees and wider leadership, over time, are led always and alone by the charity’s purposes.

Not by whim, fashion, or funding but by a shared commitment to delivering on the purposes that got the charity on the register in the first place.


There is much more I could say about the Commission and the sector. But I suppose the final thing I want to say is: thank you, to all of you who give your time, money or expertise to a charity. To the trustees, volunteers and staff who make up the ecosystem of the voluntary sector – thank you for everything you do for your charities, your communities and for our society as a whole.

I hope I have done my part to support your vital work over the last seven years, and I know that the Commission will continue to do all it can in the years ahead.

From: The Charity Commission and Dame Helen Stephenson