The case studies below provide a fictional illustration of some of the case work that the Charity Commission deals with. It also gives a practical application of the Charities Act (NI) 2008 as it currently stands. The case studies may help those who are unsure of how the Charity Commission may relate to them or their organisation.
Case study A - When things go wrong within a charity
Margaret has been fond of animals for many years and is particularly passionate about horses. Margaret and her husband retired in 2009 and sold their two storey home, moving to a rural area with some surrounding land.
Life in the countryside imbued a great sense of animal welfare in Margaret and she decided to spend three days a week volunteering with her local animal sanctuary. The organisation had received charitable tax status from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) some years ago.
Initially Margaret’s experience with the sanctuary was very positive. The charity accepted many abandoned and mistreated farm animals and focused on bringing them back to full health and rehoming them if possible.
Margaret felt that her work and the work of the charity in general are of great benefit to the public. The feel good factor was very evident.
In the spring of 2011 however, Margaret’s relationship with the organisation began to sour. There was a dramatic increase in abandoned animals at the beginning of the year and the sanctuary was under pressure.
Greater numbers of animals brought greater costs and the sanctuary manager instructed volunteers to turn away animals as they arrived at the sanctuary.
Margaret and three other volunteers disagreed with this decision and believed that the sanctuary had the capacity to take in more animals. The volunteers requested a meeting with the manager of the sanctuary and one of the trustees to discuss the issue.
A week before the meeting, Margaret and the other volunteers requested a copy of the sanctuary’s annual report and accounts. They wrote to one of the charity trustees to do so and fully explained their reasoning. They believed that as volunteers and with a good sense of the day to day functioning of the sanctuary they had sound ideas on how the charity could continue to accept animals.
The trustee refused to allow Margaret and the others to see the accounts. He wrote in an email that:
"The accounts are none of your business. As a volunteer, you have no decision making powers and no right to go snooping around our financial dealings. At any rate the sanctuary’s governing document makes no provision for the sharing of accounts so we are not obliged to hand them over".
Margaret and the other volunteers felt aggrieved at this refusal. They are aware that they have given lots of their time to the charity without asking for anything in return. They are also aware that the sanctuary does not pay rates due to charitable tax status.
They believe therefore that the public at large, who subsidise the sanctuary through tax pounds, as well as volunteers, should be certain that the charity is applying charitable assets appropriately by having some degree of access to the charity accounts.
Margaret and the other volunteers have not returned to do volunteer work since the refusal. They feel that the situation is too unsure and they are fretful about their future participation with the sanctuary. Margaret will really miss her work in the sanctuary and the many friends that she has made. Similarly, the sanctuary will miss out on the expertise of Margaret and her fellow volunteers.
Margaret and the other volunteers could raise a confidential concern in relation to the sanctuary. Raising a concern is a simple process; the concern form is hosted online and it can be returned to us via email if suitable.
Guidance on raising a confidential concern about a charity is also hosted on our website. Paper copies of this documentation can be obtained by calling or writing to the Charity Commission, if for any reason you can't access the internet.
Because the sanctuary is registered with HMRC for charitable tax purposes, the Commission has investigatory powers in relation to their activities, irrespective of the fact that charity registration hasn't begun within Northern Ireland.
It is important to note, however, that the Charity Commission will not undertake an investigation in relation to every concern received. We take an evidence based approach to our work and always test allegations before deciding whether to take action.
A proportionate response to concerns about charities
The Commission will work with charities in an attempt to resolve concerns without having to utilise the severest of our powers. Whilst currently there is no legal requirement for the sanctuary to disclose its financial accounts, the Commission encourages all charities to be open and transparent in their financial practices.
The Charities Act (NI) 2008, whilst not yet commenced in full, is best practice guideline for charities. Section 69(3) of the Act, which relates to "Public inspection of annual reports, ect." states that:
"where any person requests the charity trustees of a charity in writing to be provided with a copy of the charity’s most recent accounts or of its most recent annual report, and pays them such reasonable fee (if any) as they may require in respect of the costs of complying with the request. The trustees must comply with the request within two months".
Complying with this section should eradicate any concern amongst volunteers or members of the public, including Margaret, in relation to the financial transparency of the sanctuary. The Commission, in response to Margaret’s concern could contact the charity trustee in question, setting this information out to them.
It is in the interests of Margaret the sanctuary and indeed the Charity Commission to come to an amicable resolution to the problem. Margaret enjoys volunteering immensely and the sanctuary benefits greatly from the time that she gives to them.
It is this common sense approach that the Commission will use in relation to concerns. Public trust and confidence is vital, particularly in relation to the financial transparency of charities. The Commission functions to increase public trust and confidence in charities. It is this that will form an important consideration throughout all our work, particularly in relation to concerns and our investigations.
Case study B - Charity registration
Since 2004, Daniel has been volunteering with a group in Dungannon which works with young parents in his local area. The group provides practical advice and help for young parents, tackling issues such as sudden infant death syndrome, financial management, housing rights and nutrition.
The group means a lot to Daniel in terms of the benefit that it brings to the young parents that use the service. Daniel became a father in his teens and understands the difficulties that young people, and in particular young men, can face when they become parents.
The group applied for, and received, charitable tax status through HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in 2008. The group is small and run by volunteers and so its turnover has amounted to, on average, around £4,700 per annum. There is a management committee of volunteers in place who have asked Daniel to look into the role of Charity Commission for Northern Ireland and what the group need to do to comply with the Charities Act (NI) 2008. Daniel is one of three trustees of the group.
Outside of his involvement with the group Daniel works as a social worker. He is concerned that between work, family and volunteering commitments he will have little time for the paperwork associated with charity registration. He remembers reading something in the Belfast Telegraph about the work of the Charity Commission but is not sure what exactly he needs to do.
Daniel owns a laptop and is able to use the internet. However, he does not have a printer and can't print reams of paper at work. Daniel also has an email address that he uses for the group. Daniel is keen to know if he needs to register the charity with the Commission, and wants some general information on the Commission to report back to the other trustees with.
The group are right to look into charity registration at this early stage. As registration has not yet commenced there is NO requirement for them to apply to become a registered charity. Charity registration is expected to begin from late 2013 and all charities will be required to register, no matter their size or income.
Charity registration is complusory and the Commission will call charities forward to register in a phased and managed way from late 2013. It is a good idea for Daniel's charity to make early enquiries and be aware of some of the important aspects of the Charities Act (NI) 2008.
This can be done by having a regular look on the Charity Commission’s website. The Commission will let charities know through the website and the press is there is anything they need to do in terms of the Charities Act (NI) 2008. The website is also a good general source of information on the functions and powers of the Charity Commission.
As Daniel’s group are registered with HMRC for charitable tax purposes, they currently appear on the Commission’s "deemed list" of Northern Ireland charities. The "deemed list" operates as a work around list of Northern Ireland charities until such times as registration begins. This list is publically accessible on the Commission website and is one of the sources of information that we will use to invite charities to come forward for registration.
Until the group are invited to register they should continue on as they have been. There is no need to regularly contact the Commission, but it would be useful for us to know for future purposes if, for example, the mailing address or email address for the group were to change.
Things to think about in the future
It would be useful for Daniel to check back on our website for updates on the registration process every now and again so that he can report back to the group.
It is useful that Daniel has an email address and uses email for contact purposes. Email is a quick and cost effective way to communicate. Also, Daniel will be able to complete the registration process online via the Charity Commission website. Daniel will not have to print off and return reams of paperwork as part of the registration process, something that will save both time and money.
If the group cannot access the internet, if Daniel’s laptop is down for example, we can provide a paper application form. However if an email address is provided during the registration process, the Commission will look to use this as a continuing contact point, with the agreement of the applicant.
The Commission will also be asking for the constitution or governing document of the group as part of the registration process. Daniel should make sure that this is accessible, and indeed refer back to ensure that the group is complying with the governing document.
Because Daniel’s group are registered with HMRC and therefore appear on the "deemed list" they should be mindful that they are currently treated as a charity for the purposes of the commenced sections of the Charities Act (NI) 2008. This means for example, that a member of the public can raise a concern about the operation of the organisation.
This shouldn’t be something that unduly worries Daniel. The Commission will only look into the affairs of a charity if the concern raised is serious, evidence based and reflects a real risk to the charity, its assets or beneficiaries. Not every concern raised results in an investigation by the Charity Commission. Furthermore a trustee, like Daniel can apply to the Commission to ask for our opinion and advice on any matter relating to the performance of his duties as trustee.
When Daniel’s group are called forward to register, its activities will have to fit into one or more of the twelve charitable purposes set out under the Charities Act (NI) 2008. There are a few purposes that the group may fit into and they are not bound to fit into one group, it may be that they fit into more than one.
The group will also have to meet the public benefit requirement. This requirement is under legislative review. The Commission will be able to provide further guidance on what this requirement will look like when the legislation has been amended.
The Commission gives regular talks throughout Northern Ireland, usually hosted by sector umbrella groups. Daniel should look out for these, attendance is free and it will also allow him to network with other groups and volunteers.
If Daniel needs to contact the Commission for further information he can do so in the following ways: firstname.lastname@example.org
028 3832 0220
Charity Commission for Northern Ireland
257 Lough Road