‘Charities’ work saves, sustains and enriches life in countless ways’: Charity Commission’s Helen Stephenson on sector’s Covid response

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Helen Stephenson, chief executive, Charity Commission

By Civil Service World

22 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of government achieving in 2020?

This year has undoubtedly been defined by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the crucial role charity plays in our society. Charities’ work saves, sustains and enriches life in countless ways. So, during this turbulent time, the commission worked hard to adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach to regulation. Before the onset of the pandemic, we made significant improvements in our efficiency and effectiveness, putting us in good stead to tackle the unexpected challenges: we reduced backlogs by 80%, made a record 9,391 registration decisions and supported an extra 6,000 charities by answering 12,000 more calls to our contact centre, which has remained fully operational remotely. This year we also set new operational standards to lift our ambition in pursuit of our organisational purpose and to meet our intent to be ‘open for business’. I’m incredibly proud of the way the organisation has pulled together and kept the show on the road, allowing us to move forward on plans set out in our strategy to help charity  thrive and inspire trust, despite all the restrictions and uncertainty.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

There’s no blueprint or manual on how to lead through a global pandemic, so trying to look ahead has been key. I’ve found that it’s important to be open-minded to new ways of doing things and taking each day as a new learning opportunity.

As a leader who is ordinarily energised by being around others and working as part of a team, I’ve been very aware of the challenge of coming around to ‘the new normal’ of remote working, so I’ve tried to prioritise keeping spirits lifted. It’s been a real balancing act managing the responsibility of delivering important services while remaining mindful of the wellbeing of all my staff. Overall, I must say I’m impressed with how well the organisation has adapted to changing circumstances and really heartened by the way people have been looking out for each other across organisation.

What are the main challenges facing government in the coming year?

Charities must play an important role in helping society build back from the pandemic, and government needs them as a partner in reaching all parts of our society. But many are themselves in very difficult circumstances - because of restrictions on traditional fundraising methods, thousands of individual charities have suffered significant reductions to their income, while demand on their services has, in many cases, increased.

Having said this, the pandemic has also proven to be a spur – if an unwelcome one - to increased innovation and creativity, with charities adapting and responding in remarkable ways to a range of needs in society. And of course, we’ve seen remarkable fundraising achievements, including those by Captain Sir Tom Moore.

Strong regulation remains important as part of building the public trust that charities need to thrive in the future. I think the key challenge for the Charity Commission will be to remain focused on the public interest and our strategic aims – which include holding charities to account – while also being mindful of the extraordinary circumstances’ charities are operating under. That is a delicate balance, but one I am confident we can achieve.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

Like everyone we’re adapting our festive office celebrations, but we will definitely be coming together virtually for our employee awards, which is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing efforts of our staff. There’s a host of categories, including an award for innovation and the ‘Unsung Hero Award’ which will go to the person who has helped others in the organisation through these extraordinary times.  I’m thrilled to be ending the year celebrating the work of our staff, of whom I am very proud.

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