Complaints about charities (CC47)

(Version November 2012)

CC47 - Complaints about Charities Find out how we identify issues that require our involvement and what action you should take when you have a complaint about a charity

Download PDF (361 Kb)

Contents

A. Introduction

A1. This guidance

Charities are independent organisations run by trustees; they play an important part in our society and many of us are involved with them, as trustees, volunteers, through using their services or as donors. Occasionally people have cause to complain about charities and look to the Charity Commission as the regulator for charities in England and Wales to take up their complaints.

This guidance looks at when we will, and when we will not, take up the concerns reported to us about charities.

A2. The Charity Commission's role

The Charity Commission is the independent regulator of charities. Our job as regulator is to ensure that charities are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations. Our work means that the public can be confident about giving their support to charities and beneficiaries can have confidence about the services they receive.

Our regulatory work with charities is done by providing guidance and other best practice information, using our legal powers to make Schemes and Orders for charity administration in particular cases and intervening in matters where there is serious risk of significant harm to, or abuse of, charities, their beneficiaries or assets.

Not all complaints will fall into this serious risk category and consequently we will not always become involved in every problem or dispute that arises or is brought to our attention.

We do not act as a complaints service looking at all complaints on behalf of complainants. We assess and identify if there is a regulatory issue or concern that requires our involvement. We may refuse to take up an issue if we judge it not to be in the public interest to use our resources investigating or resolving it.

Section B looks at when we will or will not become involved and what action you should take where you have a complaint about a charity.

We do not regulate charities based in and operating in Scotland or Northern Ireland, where different legislation applies. Details of the charity regulators in Scotland and Northern Ireland can be found at section F.

A3. Scope of this guidance

This guidance is about complaints that you may have about charities; it does not include complaints that you have about our level of service or against decisions we have made. Where you have a complaint about the Commission and its service or, as someone involved in a charity, you want us to review a decision on a particular issue, please see Making a Complaint.

A4. Using this guidance

Each section has a topic heading under which we have asked relevant questions that you might raise about how we deal with complaints about charities. Generally we give a concise summary answer ('The short answer') and then give more background ('In more detail').

Although we have tried hard to write this guidance in everyday language, we have had to use technical terms in places. A list of terms can be found at section E towards the end of this guidance.

A5. Other sources of help and advice

Our work involving complaints focuses on providing the right information for charities and getting them to use all resources at their disposal to resolve problems themselves. We encourage trustees to make use of the expertise of relevant organisations to help them run their charities as effectively as possible. They can seek help on issues raised by complainants from organisations other than the Commission.

Contact details for all the organisations mentioned in this guidance can be found in section F.

A6. 'Must' and 'should': what we mean

In this guidance where we use 'must' we mean it is a specific legal or regulatory requirement affecting trustees or a charity. Trustees must comply with these requirements. To help you easily identify those sections which contain a legal or regulatory requirement we have used the Legal symbol symbol next to the short answer in that section.

We use 'should' for items we regard as minimum good practice, but for which there is no specific legal requirement. Trustees should follow the good practice guidance unless there is a valid reason not to.

B. Complaints - What you need to do and what we need to know about

B1. What do I do if I have a complaint about a charity?

The short answer

In most cases you should speak to the charity about your concern before you make any approach to the Commission. You may want to raise an issue that the Commission would not wish to take up (see below) so it will be right for you to approach the trustees direct.

Some concerns may be very serious and it might not be appropriate to speak to the trustees first, for instance, criminal activity in a charity should be reported immediately to the police and to the Commission without informing the charity first.

You do not need to tell us about issues that you have discussed with a charity and about which you have had a satisfactory response.

In more detail

The trustees of a charity are responsible for the running of their charity and it is fair and appropriate that you raise your concern with them first. It gives the trustees the opportunity to explain misunderstandings or to put things right if something has gone wrong.

Issues that should be taken up with the trustees include:

  • policies for running the charity or decisions taken by the trustees that are within their powers and within charity law
  • instances of poor service from a charity
  • employment issues, for example, unfair dismissal
  • contractual disputes
  • internal charity disputes where there are properly appointed trustees (see our guidance Conflicts in your Charity: A statement of approach by the Charity Commission)

Therefore, in practical terms we will not take forward complaints:

  • where you disagree with decisions made by the trustees and those decisions have been properly made within the law and the provisions of the charity's governing document
  • to resolve internal disagreements over a charity's policy or strategy because those involved are responsible for settling the issues themselves
  • about incidents of poor service from a charity where there is no general risk to its services, its clients or its resources
  • where the complaint arises from a charity dispute and there are properly appointed trustees whose responsibility it is to deal with the issues reported
  • where the issue reported does not pose a serious risk to the charity, its assets or beneficiaries
  • where the issue is being dealt with by, or is the responsibility of, another statutory or supervisory body
  • where there is a disagreement about the terms or delivery of a contract
  • where legal proceedings are being taken by another party against a charity, including those for the collection of debts (except in a few very rare cases where the Attorney General has specifically asked us to do so)

If your complaint is about a dispute within a charity please use our further guidance Conflicts in your charity: a statement of approach by the Charity Commission.

Our involvement in looking at complaints is limited to issues that pose a serious risk of significant harm to a charity's beneficiaries, assets, services or reputation. Section B2 explains what serious or significant issues are and what we do about them.

B2. What are serious issues and what will the Commission do about them?

The short answer

We have identified the types of issues we consider as serious and that may pose a significant risk to a charity's beneficiaries, assets, services or reputation in our Risk Framework. The Framework also sets out any factors we need to consider when assessing how serious the risks are and whether it is appropriate for us to take action.

Depending on circumstances we may decide not to take further action. If we do not take action we will tell you why and keep a record of your report.

We will inform you if we take up a serious concern but we will not give you details of how we handle our casework. We will notify you of the outcome when we have finished our case. Sometimes it can take a while before you hear from us.

In more detail

The issues we consider to be serious or significant and unacceptable for any charity, its trustees, employees or agents to be engaged in are set out in the list below. The issues are not listed in any order of priority:

  • significant financial loss to the charity
  • serious harm to beneficiaries and, in particular, vulnerable beneficiaries
  • misuse of a charity for terrorist purposes (including links with or support for terrorism, financial or otherwise, connections to proscribed organisations, misuse of a charity to foster extremism)
  • serious criminality and/or illegal activity within or involving a charity (including fraud and money laundering)
  • charities set up for an illegal or improper purpose
  • charities deliberately being used for significant private advantage
  • where a charity's independence is seriously called into question
  • other significant non-compliance breaches of trust or abuses that otherwise impact significantly on public trust and confidence in the charity and charities generally

Where there are allegations of criminal activity or concerns about taxation those issues will be investigated by the appropriate authorities, ie the police or HMRC. Our role in such matters is restricted to considering whether there has been misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of the charity in allowing illegal activity or taxation irregularities to occur. There may also be a need for us to act to protect charity property. Section B4 looks at reporting criminal matters to us and to other authorities such as the police.

It is important to provide evidence to support your concern; this is explained in section B3. If there is no evidence to support a complaint or allegation we may not take any further action.

We will not act on unsubstantiated allegations, rumour or opinion - to do this and, as a result, disrupt the charity's work would be unfair to that charity, its activities and its users and beneficiaries.

B3. How do I report an issue to the Commission?

The short answer

We have a specific online form for reporting serious issues. The form allows us to consider the issues more quickly than by other means. Even where you phone or write to report concerns we will ask you to fill in the online form. When completing the form make sure you have all the information you need to hand so it can be sent to us all together.

In more detail

You should provide us with information to help us to assess your complaint effectively and decide if there is an issue for us to take up. When using the form to report issues please tell us:

  • the name of the charity and its registration number if known
  • a summary of the issue, setting out the facts clearly, this might include:
    • who is involved and their position in the charity
    • whether the person or people involved is/are still involved with the charity
    • the effect that this matter has had on the charity and/or its beneficiaries
    • action taken by the charity because of what has happened
    • whether there has been any publicity or legal action surrounding the issue
    • your connection (if any) to the charity
    • any other evidence which supports your concerns

Also, please attach:

  • copies of documentary evidence in support of your concerns
  • any documentary evidence showing your attempts to get the charity to address your concerns
  • copies of any previous correspondence you have with any other public body about these matters

We take all reports of concerns about charities seriously and you should be aware that it is a criminal offence knowingly or recklessly to supply us with information which is false or misleading.

Only tell us about the matter once. We will not reconsider complaints that we have already dealt with unless circumstances have changed materially or significant new information has become available.

B4. Do I need to report serious issues to anyone else?

The short answer

Yes, in some circumstances. Where you suspect there is fraud, other crime or you believe there is terrorist activity in connection with the charity.

In more detail

As well as informing the Charity Commission you should:

  • Inform the police if you believe there is criminal activity within a charity. If you have already informed the police before notifying us please provide us with the crime reference number, the police officer and police station dealing with your complaint
  • Report suspected fraud connected to a charity using the Action Fraud Online Reporting Service or call 0300 123 2040
  • If you have information about possible terrorist activity connected to a charity it should be reported to the Anti-terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321

B5. Will a charity be told who is making a complaint?

The short answer

We respect confidences as far as we are able and give proper consideration to your rights under data protection, freedom of information and human rights legislation. However, there may be certain instances where your identity will be disclosed or may become apparent.

In more detail

When reporting your concern, please say whether:

  • we may tell the charity that you are the complainant

and

  • put your complaint and any evidence supplied by you directly to the charity

It is not normally our policy to send a copy of the complaints form (or any other papers which may identify you) to the charity unless you have given your consent. However, the charity is entitled to know the nature of allegations being made against it. Also, any person has a right to be told the nature of the evidence upon which a complaint about them is based. While we will take every step to try to ensure that your identity is not revealed without your consent, it may be the nature of the allegations or evidence we hold that indicates their source.

We may also be obliged to reveal information under freedom of information legislation unless an exemption applies and it is right that it is exercised. Section F provides details for the Information Commissioner from whom you can find out more about freedom of information legislation.

In cases where we use our statutory powers to undertake an inquiry we usually publish a Statement of Results of Inquiry on its conclusion. Information from inquiries may also be used in court proceedings. Documents and information gathered for the purposes of an inquiry will be treated in confidence, until we publish the Statement of Results of Inquiry (although even then some information will continue to be exempt from disclosure) or unless they are required under a Court Order during legal proceedings.

Some whistleblowers have statutory rights and protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and those who audit or independently examine charities' accounts have rights and obligations of disclosure to the Commission in certain circumstances. These rights and obligations are explained in Section C and D.

C. Making a complaint under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) also known as 'whistleblowing'

C1. What does this Act do?

The short answer

PIDA protects workers from detrimental treatment or victimisation from their employer if, in the public interest, they report wrongdoing.

It protects most workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors, but does not apply to genuinely self-employed professionals (other than in the NHS), voluntary workers (including charity trustees and charity volunteers), police officers or the intelligence services. Someone who is employed by a charity would be able to use the provisions of PIDA.

This section provides an overview of the disclosure procedures from the Act where they might apply to charity employees. If you want to make a disclosure you may wish to seek independent legal advice or seek further information from the organisations listed at section F.

In more detail

PIDA protects workers in a number of ways, for example:

  • if an employee is dismissed because he or she has made a protected disclosure (see section C4) that will be treated as unfair dismissal
  • workers are given a right not to be subjected to any 'detriment' by their employers on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure
  • workers are able to present a complaint to an employment tribunal if they suffer detriment as a result of making a protected disclosure

PIDA aims to increase the accountability of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors through the introduction of protection for workers who blow the whistle on wrongdoing within or concerning an organisation, Charities (as part of the voluntary sector) are within the jurisdiction of the Act.

C2. What does this have to do with the Charity Commission?

The short answer

In our role as regulator for charities in England and Wales we work to ensure that charity trustees comply with their legal obligations in controlling and managing the administration of their charities. The Commission is a 'prescribed person' under PIDA allowing it to accept disclosures from charity workers.

Those making disclosures to the Commission should take care to make them in the way specified by PIDA.

In more detail

Workers who are aware of wrongdoing within a charity or a non-charitable body (where this involves the administration of charities or charitable funds) can disclose information to us about the administration of charities and funds given, or held, for charitable purposes. They must raise their concerns in accordance with the PIDA provisions.

For a disclosure to be protected by PIDA (see section C4) it must relate to matters that 'qualify' for protection under that Act (see section C3).

Disclosures made to the Commission about the charity will be considered as part of our complaints procedure.

C3. What is a 'qualifying' disclosure?

The short answer

A qualifying disclosure is one which provides information on specific matters outlined by PIDA, which the person disclosing them reasonably believes to be true.

In more detail

The disclosure must relate to:

  • a criminal offence
  • the breach of a legal obligation
  • a miscarriage of justice
  • a danger to the health and safety of any individual
  • damage to the environment
  • deliberate concealment of information tending to show any of the above five matters

In order to make a qualifying disclosure the worker must have a reasonable belief that the information being provided tends to show that one or more of the events bulleted above is happening now, has happened in the past or is likely to happen in the future.

Certain conditions must apply to ensure the disclosure is 'protected'. These are set out in the next section.

C4. What is a 'protected' disclosure?

The short answer

This is a qualifying disclosure made by the worker, subject to particular conditions, to ensure that it is protected by PIDA.

In more detail

A qualifying disclosure to the Charity Commission will be a 'protected' disclosure provided the worker:

  • makes the disclosure in good faith
  • reasonably believes that the relevant failure relates to the proper administration of charities and funds given, or held, for charitable purposes

and

  • reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true

Workers can report directly to the Commission when they have concerns that fall within the above descriptions. It is important to note that where a worker is victimised for making a disclosure to the Charity Commission, any claim they may have under the PIDA is against his or her employer and not against the Commission.

C5. Is there any other information about PIDA?

The short answer

Yes, information is available from the government services website GOV.UK and also from the charity Public Concern at Work.

In more detail

Public Concern at Work provides free confidential advice to workers who have concerns about wrong-doing in the workplace. They have a whistleblowing advice line on 020 7404 6609. Their online guidance for PIDA can be found on their website.

The GOV.UK website provides information about employment and problems at work, including how to 'blow the whistle' on malpractice or wrongdoing. See their guidance on protection for whistleblowers.

C6. If I want to make a PIDA report to the Commission about a charity, who do I contact?

You should use the online form and make it clear that your complaint is being made under the PIDA whistleblowing regulations.

D. Reports from auditors and independent examiners

D1. Why is this included in this guidance?

The short answer Legal symbol

Auditors and independent examiners of charity accounts of non-company and company charities have legal duties to report certain issues to us.

In more detail

The Charities Act 2011 imposes a statutory duty on independent examiners or auditors of non-company and company charities to tell us about any matters that they identify which are of 'material significance' to the exercise of our powers under:

  • section 46 of the Charities Act 2011 to institute inquiries

or

  • section 76 of the Charities Act 2011 to act for the protection of charities

D2. What are matters of material significance?

The short answer

These are likely to be matters concerned with serious criminal or unlawful activity or serious incidents that could affect a charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation.

In more detail

The auditor's or independent examiner's duty to report matters of material significance will arise primarily where they identify:

  • suspected or actual non-compliance with the law and regulations

or

  • significant breaches of trust or duties placed upon charity trustees under charity law

Matters considered to be of material significance by the Charity Commission include those:

  • suggesting dishonesty or fraud involving a significant loss of, or major risk to, charitable funds or assets
  • showing failure of internal controls, including failure in charity governance, that resulted, or may result, in a significant loss or misappropriation of charitable funds, or charitable funds being, or having been, put at major risk
  • leading to the knowledge or suspicion that the charity or charitable funds have been used for money laundering or such funds are the proceeds of serious organised crime or that the charity is a conduit for criminal activity
  • leading to the belief or suspicion that the charity, its trustees, employees or assets have been involved in, or used to support, terrorism or a proscribed organisation within or outside the UK
  • with evidence suggesting that the way in which the charity carries out its work relating to the care and welfare of beneficiaries, those beneficiaries have been or were put at significant risk of abuse or mistreatment
  • where there is significant or recurring breach or breaches of legislative requirements or of the charity's trusts
  • where there is a deliberate or significant breach of an Order or direction made by a charity regulator under statutory powers including suspending a charity trustee, prohibiting a particular transaction or activity or granting consent on particular terms that involve significant charitable assets or liabilities
  • where an auditor's statement to the trustees, on the auditor ceasing to hold office, contains issues that should be reported to the trustees

D3. Is other guidance available for auditors or examiners?

The short answer

Yes, guidance is available for both auditors and examiners to help them decide whether they should report something to us under their legal obligation to do so or in the public interest.

In more detail

Auditors should perform their work in accordance with International Standardson Auditing (ISAs) as adopted by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and with regard to the Practice Note 11: The Audit of Charities. Specific guidance is provided within this Practice Note on the factors to be considered in applying the reporting duty or in making a report in the public interest. This guidance has been prepared in consultation with us. Copies can be obtained via the FRC website.

Independent examiners should refer to the directions and guidance notes contained in our guidance Independent Examination of Charity Accounts: Examiners' Guide (CC32). Section F of this guidance gives details of the duty to report matters to us.

E. List of technical terms used in this guidance

Charity trustees: These are the people who serve on the governing body of the charity and are responsible for the general control and management of the administration of a charity. They can be known by other titles such as trustees, directors, board members, governors or committee members.

Dispute: In the context of this guidance a dispute is a disagreement within a charity that results in differing opinions, a struggle for control and even a breakdown in the effective day-to-day management of the charity.

Governing document: This is a legal document setting out the charity's purposes and, usually, how it is to be administered. It may be a trust deed, constitution, memorandum and articles of association, will, conveyance, Royal Charter, Scheme of the Commission or other formal document.

Independent examination: This is a form of external scrutiny of a charity's accounts, less in depth than a formal financial audit.

Inquiry: When used in the context of this guidance this means a formal inquiry opened under section 46 of the Charities Act 2011. This enables us to look into the conduct of a charity's affairs and, if necessary, to use our powers to protect charity property.

Proscribed organisation: These are organisations named in law as being involved in or linked to terrorist activity. It is a criminal offence to be a member of, or invite support for, a proscribed organisation.

F. Further information and advice

There are many resources to help individuals take up issues with particular types of charities. This is not a definitive list of all sources of information available but it offers a good overview and starting point.

F1. Other Organisations

Association of Charity Shops

This organisation supports member charities that run charity shops as part of their fundraising activities. It promotes a code of practice for charity retailing.

Email: mail@charityshops.org.uk
Website: www.charityshops.org.uk

Companies House

This is the incorporation authority and regulator for limited companies which includes charitable companies. Public information about companies is available from Companies House.

Email: enquiries@companies-house.gov.uk
Website: www.companieshouse.gov.uk

Fundraising Standards Board

This body has been formed to operate an open self-regulatory scheme for the fundraising sector, with the purpose of encouraging excellence in fundraising and providing a robust and accessible complaints procedure. It will consider complaints about its members.

Email: info@frsb.org.uk
Website: www.frsb.org.uk

GOV.UK

This is a website listing all central and local government services. There is a Citizenship section which highlights matters of interest about charities and provides advice on making complaints on particular issues.

Website: http://www.gov.uk

The Information Commissioner's Office

This is the UK's independent authority set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal information.

Website: www.ico.gov.uk

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

NCVO produces a wide range of information and support services for those working in the voluntary sector, including a publication on inducting and supporting trustees.

Email: ncvo@ncvo-vol.org.uk
Website: www.ncvo-vol.org.uk

Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR)

OSCR is the regulator for charities registered and operating in Scotland.

Email: info@oscr.org.uk
Website: http://www.oscr.org.uk

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is the regulator for charities registered and operating in Northern Ireland.

Email: admin@charitycommissionni.org.uk
Website: http://www.charitycommissionni.org.uk

Trading Standards

This central website will tell you how to find your nearest Trading Standards office and how to make a complaint about the supply of goods or services. This may be of help where your complaint is about a charity shop.

Website: www.tradingstandards.gov.uk

Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA)

WCVA represents the interests of, and campaigns for, voluntary organisations, volunteers and communities in Wales. It provides a comprehensive range of information, consultancy, funding and management and training services.

Email: help@wcva.org.uk
Website: www.wcva.org.uk

Civil Mediation

The Ministry of Justice website provides a facility for you to search a list of civil mediation providers working in your county.

Website: www.civilmediation.justice.gov.uk

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

ACAS aims to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides up-to-date information, independent advice and will work with employers and employees to solve problems. ACAS services are provided on a regional basis.

Website: www.acas.org.uk
Helpline: 08457 47 47 47

Public Concern at Work

PCAW is a charity that offers free confidential advice to those who may want to 'blow the whistle' on malpractice or wrongdoing in the workplace.

Advice line 020 7404 6609
Email: whistle@pcaw.co.uk
Website: http://www.pcaw.co.uk

F2. Key Charity Commission guidance

The Charity Commission produces a wide range of guidance giving information and advice to charity trustees and the general public on issues relating to charity law, regulation and best practice. The list below is a selection based on the issues covered in this guidance.

The Essential Trustee: What you need to know (CC3)
Internal Financial Controls for Charities (CC8)
Payment of Charity Trustees (CC11)
Charity Reporting and Accounting: The essentials (CC15b)
Charities and Fundraising (CC20)
Registering as a Charity (CC21)
Users on Board: Beneficiaries who become trustees (CC24)
Charities and Risk Management: A guide for trustees (CC26)
Sales, leases, transfers or mortgages: What trustees need to know about disposing of charity land (CC28)
Independent Examination of Charity Accounts: Trustees' Guide (CC31)
Independent Examination of Charity Accounts: Examiners' Guide (CC32)
Acquiring Land (CC33)
Charities and Meetings (CC48)
Charities and Commercial Partners (RS2)
Cause for Complaint? How charities manage complaints about their service (RS11)
Our regulatory approach
A Guide to Conflicts of Interest for Charity Trustees
Protecting charities from harm (the 'compliance toolkit')
Conflicts in your charity: a statement of approach by the Charity Commission

Top of page

Print page