How can we better support families setting up charities ‘in memoriam’
20 February 2019 | By Tom Hoyle
For four years a discussion paper has circulated within Cause4 that grapples with how best to serve charities forged in tragedy. Those set up to remember somebody that has died often in violent or unexpected circumstances. The charity sector has been missing a critical friend in this difficult topic since Disaster Action, an exemplary charity dedicated to bereaved campaigners itself decided to close in 2015. Over several edits our working paper has taken on topical and philosophical qualities – responding to specific incidents of street violence, terrorism and official failings whilst reflecting on fundamental principles of charity under increasing regulatory scrutiny.
Many charities get into distress. But in the case of charities set up in memoriam their Trustees very often are in distress themselves. Indeed, if tragedy inspired the founding of a charity, running it may be part of a process of grieving, with benefits and downsides to that.
We’re publishing a distilled version of this analysis to shed light on a collection of charities (who are strangers to each other) which we consider rather special for society for their compelling messages but also their extra vulnerability.
On the basis that prevention is better than cure, all our recommendations focus on amending specific processes in the Charity Commission registration, but we think there is much more policymakers, funders and legal counsel could do to help memorial charities across the organisational cycle:
· Foundation – deciding to launch a charity and the initial set-up
· Growth – building an organisation and developing its activities
· Turnaround – refreshing or reviving a charity after stasis or crisis
· Closure – making the decision to wind-up, or going insolvent
In addition to the institutional knowledge Disaster Action left behind, a new self-diagnosis toolkit published by Cass Business School may be helpful to Trustees ’peering over the precipice’ to weigh up turnaorund or closure. We’re intrigued by emerging trends in grantmaking like Open Road Alliance which is looking at funding to compensate risk obstacles. But applying for emergency funding streams creates its own efficiency and equity problems. Perhaps funders would achieve more by rewarding the best risk planners with reserve funding or pooled project insurance? For others, the best way to uphold public confidence in charities and maximise impact is to focus finite money and attention on inspiring and thriving charities, not strugglers of any kind.
That may appeal to a cruel-to-be-kind mindset but it overlooks the systemic benefits in encouraging boards to anticipate adversity. If boards take practical steps in advance they are more likely to improve and/or grow – and perhaps never need to call in the lawyers for closure.
Above all, there is no shame in calling it a day. For memorial charities, it’s especially important that’s known from Day One.
Much of the debate on new charities adheres to a tabloid-level grumble in the gut that there are ’just too many charities’. The Charity Commission has done solid work on dormant charities and last year removals outnumbered registrations (5,293 to 5,045). Contrary to popular assumptions, there have been thousands of charity mergers since 2012. The registration process sensibly asks ”Before you start to set up a charity make sure that you know it is the best option for what you want to do.” It suggests alternatives to independent registration, including the Community Foundation (where Jamie Carragher set up his 23 Foundation) and CAF. This is more constructive than following the illiberal and arrogant logic that the Charity Commission should refuse to recognise new organisations that cannot justify their business plan’s uniqueness. Reach and innovation cannot be left to incumbents.
We recommend the Charity Commission pre-registration process lists more alternatives and the website showcases alternatives to full registration like the Bobby Moore Fund within Cancer Research and the Philanthropy Foundation, an alternative to CAF.
For those who choose to found their own organisation, we believe the guidance and the model governing document should address the intended lifespan of the organisation. In recent years, several health charities have chosen to close on the invention or national rollout of specific vaccines. The Hillsborough campaign achieved its legal objectives. It’s understood the Trustees of the Tom Maynard Trust set themselves a 55 month runway. Thinking around milestones and organisational sunset clauses would help adherence to mission and avoid exhaustion, particularly of the bereaved.
Of course, many will still choose the default term, permanence. However, we believe an explicit selection in the registration form will prompt Trustees to consider their ’mission complete’ point.
A related benefit would be this brings forward other important considerations: succession planning, wind-up rules and resources, which Trustees at the beginning of their journey easily overlook. We think wind-up processes, which occasionally become acrimonious, might be less heated if founding trustees designated their preferred recipient of residual assets. As with living wills this could be updated by a supermajority of Trustees or regulatory action to avoid moral hazard or obsolete decisions.
The loss of a loved-one in sudden or violent circumstances understandably produces a strong desire among friends and family to address failings and injustices, and achieve a positive legacy befitting the deceased person. Harnessed effectively, such motivations have succeeded in providing moral and material support to others affected, and have made landmark contributions to public policy, civil society and national debate.
Many relatives choose to establish a memorial initiative as a charitable organisation – a status which bestows several administrative, tax and symbolic advantages to campaigns, funds and memorials. Successfully registering a charity can also convey permanence and denote a ‘lasting flame’ in the name of the deceased.
However, the bureaucratic and managerial burden can be overwhelming. Establishing then maintaining a charitable organisation incurs reams of legal, strategic, governance, financial and personnel obligations. Coming unexpectedly to traumatised and grieving individuals, the burden may fall hardest on those least equipped to carry it. Let’s help from the start.