Charity Commission refuses to back charity interns

INDUSTRY REGULATOR INSISTS THEY ARE ‘VOLUNTEERS’ – AND SHOULDN’T EXPECT PAY

The independent body which regulates the charity industry has shocked Graduate Fog by announcing it has no intention of intervening in the row about unpaid internships within the charity sector.

Instead of offering his support to interns – and a promise to investigate the situation – a spokesperson for the Charity Commission gave Graduate Fog a sanctimonious lecture on the importance of volunteering.

Hmm. It’s funny how it’s only junior staff who are expected to ‘volunteer’ though, isn’t it? Everybody else seems to get paid for their work…

As the debate about unpaid internships within private companies escalates – precipitated by the Tories’ recent internship auction, where placements were ‘sold’ for up to £4,000 – Graduate Fog feels strongly that the charity industry should not be excluded from this discussion.

A recent blog post about Comic Relief’s public advertisement for an unpaid, full-time ‘broadcast intern’ (Should Comic Relief pay their interns?) prompted a huge response.

The majority of Graduate Fog’s felt that expecting young people to work for charities (and other non-profit organisations) for free was effectively using emotional blackmail to secure free labour and cut staff costs.

The response was so strong that I decided to approach the (taxpayer-funded) Charity Commission. Because you have to complain about a specific incident, I explained the Comic Relief internship to them clearly. Here is an excerpt:

My understanding is that these unpaid internships are lawful within the charity sector (I understand that interns working for non-profit organisations can be called ‘volunteer workers’) but I am questioning whether a change in this legislation is needed in order to protect young workers hoping to break into the charity sector.

One of my users drew my attention to an online advertisement on Comic Relief’s website for a ‘Broadcast intern’. This position is for three months unpaid (expenses only) but I – and my users – feel strongly that the detailed job description suggests that it should be a paid role and it should not be marketed as a ‘volunteer’ role. There are also clear inconsistencies here – I believe that Comic Relief know this not to be a true ‘volunteer’ role, by the way that they ‘sell’ this role as an opportunity to gain invaluable experience within the TV industry. The person who takes this role is likely to be a young worker desperate to gain experience – not a true ‘volunteer’ at all.

I have contacted the press office at Comic Relief, but I am not satisfied with their response. I feel it is hypocritical of them to suggest that junior roles within charities should not be paid, when more senior ones are. In the case of Comic Relief, some senior roles are extremely well paid.

I would like the Charity Commission to investigate this matter involving Comic Relief – but also to clarify your position on unpaid internships within the charity sector. Does the Charities Sector condone this sort of practice?

I was confident that the Charity Commission would take my complaint seriously – or at least provide official confirmation that the unpaid internships situation was something they are aware of and investigating in general, or at least monitoring.

So imagine my disappointment when I received this pathetic response:

From: Large Charities Division, Charity Commission
To:Tanya de Grunwald
Subject: RE: Charity Commission – Response to query CC:00690410

Dear Ms de Grunwald

The Charity Commission is the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales. Our job as regulator is to work closely with charities to ensure that they are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations under charity law in order to promote public trust and confidence.

As a regulator, we have a duty to consider concerns brought to our attention. However, our statutory powers of intervention are limited and trustees have a broad discretion to manage their charity as they see fit, within charity law and the charity’s own governing document.

We are by law not permitted to interfere in the administration of a charity or become involved in its internal affairs. Additionally, we would not take up complaints where it would be disproportionate to do so, or where another regulator is better placed to examine the concerns.

As mentioned above, trustees have a broad discretion to manage their charity as they see fit, in furtherance of its purposes. This includes making decisions to take on volunteers to carry out the charity’s work. The charity should of course act in accordance with relevant employment law.

The Commission oversees charity law, not employment law matters, and as such we do not have any regulatory role regarding the issue you have raised. Therefore we will not be taking this up with the charity. I have however provided below some further points of contact which may be of assistance to you.

The following links are to the Directgov website…

…Alternatively you may wish to write to your local Member of Parliament or the Minister for Education about this issue.

I appreciate that this may not be the response you were seeking, but I hope this helps to explain why we cannot take your complaint further.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Stewart
Senior Liaison Officer, Large Charities Division ( London Office)

Brilliant.

Let’s just rewind to the first paragraph of Jez’s response:

The Charity Commission is the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales. Our job as regulator is to work closely with charities to ensure that they are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations under charity law in order to promote public trust and confidence.

Hmm. Making sure charities are ‘accountable’… ‘well-run’… ‘meet their legal obligations’… ‘promote public trust and confidence’… Doesn’t that sound like they should at least have a passing interest in the matter of the questionable use of unpaid internships within charities?

I replied:

From: Tanya de Grunwald
To: Large Charities Division, Charity Commission
Subject: Re: Charity Commission – Response to query CC:00690407

Dear Jeremy,

You’re right – I am extremely disappointed by this response from the Charity Commission.

Your email clearly states:

“Our job as regulator is to work closely with charities to ensure that they are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations under charity law in order to promote public trust and confidence.”

Does the Charity Commission not feel that the widespread use of young, unpaid workers by supposedly respectable charities comes under this heading?

My point is that although this practice may be legal (and even that is disputed), it is my opinion that unpaid internships within the charity sector are destroying “public trust and confidence” in your entire sector. Why should people give to causes that take advantage of young people on their own doorsteps like this?

If you are not prepared to comment further on this particular case, is the Charity Commission even willing to make any kind of formal statement about its views on unpaid internships in general, within the charity sector?

One of my users suggested that you might be able to help with this matter – and so far your response has not been very impressive. Are you able to offer any kind of statement to show my users (many of which are unpaid interns, some within the charity sector) that you plan to do anything about their situation? I can guarantee that they will view your response so far as pretty gutless.

With thanks

Tanya

This time he responded with a patronising lecture on the importance of volunteering:

From: Large Charities Division, Charity Commission
To:Tanya de Grunwald
Subject: RE: Charity Commission – Response to query CC:00690410

Our reference: JS/326568/C-316993/LCD

Dear Ms de Grunwald

Thank you for your email.

One of the distinctive features of the charitable sector is the voluntary principle – the willingness of those who run charities to give time freely for the benefit of others and not for their own financial reward. There are large number of charity workers in England and Wales, and the overwhelming majority embodies this spirit of volunteering by acting without payment of any kind, or with only their basic expenses covered. This is an important principle and helps to sustain trust and confidence in charities.

The Commission has a duty under s 1D(2)(2)(b) of the Charities Act 1993 to act in a way which is compatible with the encouragement of voluntary participation in charity work.

Charities have the discretion to pay their workers and may do so if they consider the payment would be in the charity’s best interests and would better help it achieve its purposes. Such decisions are a matter for each individual charity.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Stewart
Senior Liaison Officer, Large Charities Division ( London Office)

Frankly, I’m seriously unimpressed with this – which I consider to be a pretty piss-poor response to a serious, widespread and newsworthy problem that totally falls within the Charity Commission’s remit. Does anyone else agree? Or did I just pick a fight with the wrong useless, taxpayers’-money-draining quango?

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