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Time’s up for the Charity Commission as we know it. But I’m just a donor so what do I know.

Amidst the balderdash, bureaucracy and blocking that passes for government these days, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and its Chair, Margaret Hodge MP, have become something of the nation’s conscience.

This week Margaret Hodge is reported by Third Sector magazine as suggesting the Charity Commission could be scrapped.  At the very least she has said the regulator is not fit-for-purpose.

This follows an utterly damning report by the National Audit Office which said the Commission is failing to regulate charities properly . Which means it’s failing to provide the main service for which it is given £23 Million of taxpayers money every year.

Having had experience of shutting down a renegade charity, I tend to agree with Margaret Hodge.

The sight of thousands of unopened donor letters piled from floor to ceiling in an empty office, the supercomputer in the corner with its flashing LCD lights and screens churning out lists of names for direct mailing, the threatening and aggressive way in which its founders stoutly defended their despicable operation.  This is not made up I assure you.

Then there was the Charity Commission: slow, unresponsive, reluctant to advise.  There were times when it felt as though they were not sure whose behalf they were acting.  More often than not it felt like they were protecting themselves.

That was ten years ago. Too late to be of any relevance you might say. You might very well be right.

However, they said the same sort of things then in response to criticism as they have this week: they have a new strategy; they are putting things right; they have insufficient money and; need more time.  It’s an old tune which wears thin on the ears.  So I have little belief that they will ‘up their game’ .

Fact is it’s pretty easy to set-up a charity.  It’s very difficult to do something about the ones that go off the rails.  Unfortunately the Commission has become part of the problem rather than the solution.  It doesn’t think like a regulator, more like the civil service of old.  And worryingly, as an organisation, it has gone awol in the eyes of policy-makers, stakeholders and perhaps members of the public who come into contact with it.

I do understand why many charity commentators and thought-leaders have been less blunt than Margaret Hodge in their criticism of the Commission.  But I don’t agree with them.  Nor do I agree with the argument that it has a lot on its plate the pressure is on to deliver it with less money.  That may very well be an argument for re-focusing the Commission on one or two key tasks and hiving the others off to those who are better equipped to do them.  There is nothing to say they might not do a better job either.

But these days I am just a donor, so what do I know.

A 'silver cloud' with a dark lining? – medical research charities in the recession

I suspect you may have seen the bleak forecast made by charity chief executives in the latest National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) survey published today.  97% of those surveyed said they expected economic conditions to be negative and 55% advised that they would be reducing their staff.

Tough times indeed.  And so this seems an opportune moment to publish for the first time, AMRC’s up-to-date evidence of how medical research charities in particular are faring.  If you have time to spare, you can find the summary results from our survey conducted in February (and interpretation) here.  The headline figure of 63% of our members saying the affect of the recession was significant or very significant certainly bears out what chief execs are saying in the NCVO study.  If nothing else, it underlines the point that charities are suffering in general.

I tend to agree withStuart Etherington from NCVO that, if the Government is really serious about charities being a full partner in the economy, then it better get its act together and develop a growth strategy with us, for us, and fast.

But forgive me if I necessarily concentrate on making a few, brief science-focused comments and observations based on our own survey:

The good news is that the forecasts for research expenditure by AMRC’s members are on a par with the last time we did this survey in 2009 – if not a little better.  Then, 63% of member charities said their future funding would stay the same and 21% said they would be increasing funding.  This year, 55% said they would be maintaining their funding at the same levels and 32.5% said they would be increasing it.

On the down side, a slighter higher number of members – 12.5% this year versus 8% last time – say they do not intend to fund new research this year or plan to reduce funding.    The economy is perhaps amplifying the diversity in the sector – particularly the difference between the top and the tail of the AMRC family –  just as corrections in any market are wont to do.  The texture of the comments provided by charities is also interesting in showing how a) pressures elsewhere are rippling across to our members (a further point is made on this below) but also b) the the very significant strategic rethink  some organisations are undertaking as opposed to a mere trimming of activity.

This year we deliberately asked our members for their first impressions of the impact of the spending review.  Three themes emerge.

The first is anecdotal only but the squeeze on public finances and cuts to services elsewhere is forcing some medical research charities who also provide care services, to consider diverting funds from research to the latter.  As I say in the survey report:

‘Interestingly, this year we are beginning to see a narrative emerge which reports that economic conditions are not just impacting income but the growth and room for manoeuvre for charities in fulfilling their objectives.  As one respondent put it: 

 ‘The impact is not limited to income, but more about how we will need to use our funds. As a charity that encompasses both care and research, we are beginning to see the impact of statutory retreat, with a significant rise in requests for support from patients and families. This is likely to require us to divert funds from research to care-based activities.’

How far and wide this trend extends only time will tell.

The second is a perception among members of shrinkage in the research infrastructure which – a bit like the proverbial air bubble in one’s recently covered text book which simply moves elsewhere when pressed – means extra pressure in other parts of the system.

Which leads me onto the third – as predicted by Dame Bridget Ogilvie in her guest blog here last autumn .  Namely, that AMRC member charities are beginning to see an increase in the number of grant applications they are receiving.  More than one Chief Executive has already expressed to me the difficulties of managing this, both in terms of administration but also in terms of ensuring they continue to derive the highest quality from the ideas being put forward.

Finally, today we have also updated our data to show the sector’s research expenditure for 2010-2011.  During that period, AMRC’s member charities spent £1.137 billion on research (excluding capital expenditure) versus £1,078 billion last year.  A slight increase therefore and a record to be proud of given the environment.  But the salutory story looking back over the longer term, is that this is the smallest increase we have seen since 2005 and the first quantitative indication of what economists might call a ‘slow-down.’

Being an optimist by nature I comfort myself with the knowledge that medical research remains the No. 1 cause that the public gives to.  But it would appear today that even this silver cloud has a somewhat dark lining.

The message to supporters and the public remains the same as it has over the past few years – your donations are vital to charities continuing to support medical research of patient benefit!

NHS reforms, research and 'localism'

I really would encourage you to read this morning’s article in The Guardian about the impact of the NHS reforms on doctor  expertise and research.  Its the first article that I’ve seen thus far which really conveys the message about health research that AMRC has been trying to put across and on which we anticipate stepping up our activity as the Health and Social Care Bill heads into the Lords.

It also feels like a significant piece because of the intervention of the President of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson.  This is the profession’s voice as opposed to the ‘union’ voice as articulated by the British Medical Association (BMA).

At our Science Communication Awards on Tuesday night I got into quite an interesting conversation with some of our guests about the possible implications for research of an NHS reform package which is essentially as much about greater ‘localism’ as it is about establishing a regulated market.

One of the perennial concerns that AMRC often has to deal with is that of small local charities raising money for research taking place at their local hospital or by a doctor who perhaps cared for a loved-one.  It is not the raising of funds that is necessarily the problem.  Indeed, it is important that we do not deter such local passion and conviction.  No, it is the fact that such money is being raised and then distributed in a parochial way; that such local charities very rarely use independent external review (peer review) to ensure they are funding the best science.

That is why – knowing also that administering peer review is not easy or without associated costs – we try our hardest to encourage such organisations to buddy-up with other charities that do have such systems in place or find some way of routing funds to research charities while retaining some sort of footprint on it.

Who is to say that in the new NHS, we might not see GP consortia actively encouraging such local charity connections in the name of ‘so-called research’ – superficially beneficial but in the long-term pretty disastrous.

Making the EU work better for research charities

On the face of it you might think this a very Friday afternoon sort of article.  But, as a discussion of how European foundations operate in a research funding context, it is is extremely interesting. 

The news peg for it is that plans are afoot by the European Commission to present a regulation for a European Foundation Statute by the end of 2011.  Very simply the Statute would make it easier for foundations and charities to operate across the EU including raising funds.  The idea has been in the works for some time and there is a public consultation open until February 28th.  See the European Foundation Centre website for more information – they also have a very active research forum.

I am not that keen on the European Commission’s pitch that this would enable charities to fill the gaps left by cuts in public expenditure on research by EU Governments (remember that argument from the spending review?).  Nonetheless the idea of enabling charities to generate greater funds is to be supported.

You may be interested to know that AMRC has been successful in getting an ESRC internship this Spring to look at NGO activities in support of medical research across the UK – as a comparative study but also to help direct our efforts to build cross-border alliances.  Currently our strongest links are with equivalent organisations in the US, Canada and Eire.  I am certain we could play an important role in marshalling voices across Europe in the same way as happens among disease-specific patient communities.  And Genetic Alliance UK is well-known for its work in this arena.

Towards a European AMRC, that’s what I say.

The legacy of medical research

…and another thing.

Two weeks ago I blogged about the CAF/NCVO UK Giving report which showed that medical research topped the causes to which the British public gave money.  Well, today, the results of an AA/Populus poll of its 18,000 members have been published showing that of those people planning to leave a legacy to charity, medical research again tops the causes to which people plan to give (25.3%).

As an Automobile Association (AA) member I want to make clear that I did not fill out their poll more than once!

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