Raising Concerns in the Charity Sector
When things go wrong in a charity, it can be difficult for workers to know what to do and who to speak to about their concerns. However, speaking up is an important part of keeping people safe and upholding the values of the sector. Despite representing a relatively small proportion of the UK workforce, the charity sector makes up a large proportion of calls to our advice line.
This webpage is designed for those working in the charity sector, to help you understand what kind of concerns you can raise, what support you can get, what your legal protections are and where you can go to raise your concerns.
**If you think a child or other vulnerable person is in immediate danger, you should call 999.**
Types of concerns you might look to raise include:
- safeguarding issues;
- misuse of charitable funds (including fraud);
- financial mismanagement;
- financial conflicts of interest;
- ethical conflicts of interest;
- governance issues.
Will I be protected?
Unfortunately, things can go wrong when raising concerns at work and so there are legal protections for workers who blow the whistle on wrongdoing at work. These are set out in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (“PIDA”) — or the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 if you are in Northern Ireland (“PIDO”).
To be protected by whistleblowing law, you must make a “protected disclosure”, which has three main elements:
To be protected by whistleblowing law you also need to disclose to the right person in the right way, either internally to your employer or externally to an outside body. Find out more about how to raise a whistleblowing concern in accordance with the law.
If you meet the above criteria, you have a right not to be victimised or dismissed because you have raised concerns.
But be aware that this does not mean you cannot be disciplined or dismissed for the way you have raised your concerns (if, for instance, you have done so in a rude or insulting way) or for something else that is separable from the raising of the concern.
Who can be protected?
UK law only gives whistleblowing protections to workers. This means that volunteers and trustees are not covered by the protections contained in PIDA at the moment, although this is something that Protect are campaigning to change. Volunteers and trustees may still be able to raise concerns, but they will not be legally protected from mistreatment in the same way as workers.
Raising concerns internally
Generally, raising concerns with your employer will be the quickest, safest and most effective way to get the issues resolved. The law does not require you to report your concerns internally first but some regulators will want evidence that internal options have been considered before they will get involved.
Unlike in strictly regulated sectors such as health and financial services, there is no detailed guidance on the regulation of whistleblowing arrangements in charities. Large charities tend to have formal whistleblowing arrangements, such as a whistleblowing policy and a designated whistleblowing contact. However, small charities often have no formal arrangements at all.
It is a good idea to check your employer’s internal whistleblowing policy first. In any case, you may still be protected by PIDA if you raise your concerns to someone in a position of authority within your organisation, even if they are not mentioned in the policy or there is no policy.
Individuals you could speak to include:
It is often advisable to raise your concerns in writing at some point — so that there is a record of them. Our template library contains helpful templates, which you can use when raising/escalating a concern or when requesting feedback on concerns that you have raised.
Remember to raise your concerns in a polite and professional manner. This will maximise your chances of seeing them addressed but may also help to protect you, as if you are disciplined or dismissed for the inappropriate way in which you have raised your concerns (if, for instance, you have done so in a rude or insulting way), in some circumstances, you may not be protected by whistleblowing law.
Raising concerns externally
Sometimes, it is necessary to raise your concerns with an external body. This may be because:
- you believe your employer will not investigate the concerns properly;
- you believe you may be victimised at work for raising concerns;
- you have already raised your concerns internally and nothing has been done.
Some regulators/external bodies are ‘prescribed persons’ under whistleblowing law. This means that you can raise whistleblowing concerns with them and it is is more likely that you will be protected by whistleblowing law (than if you raise concerns with a regulator/external body that is not prescribed). Whistleblowing law can still apply to disclosures made to other external bodies, but the legal tests involved are different. You can read more about ‘prescribed persons’ and ‘wider disclosures’ here, or contact our free legal Advice line for more information.
Remember to explain why you believe that the concerns you are raising are in the public interest. A regulator will want to know how the issue you are reporting affects the workforce and/or beneficiaries. For example, one of the questions the Charity Commission would like its whistleblowers to answer is: “What impact does the wrongdoing have on the people the charity helps, its assets, services, staff or reputation?”
- The Charity Commission (“CCEW”) is the regulator and registrar of charities for England and Wales. It is an independent, non-ministerial government department accountable to Parliament, with quasi-judicial powers.
- The CCEW encourages disclosures from volunteers and trustees as well as workers; however be aware that whistleblowing law does not, at present, protect volunteers and trustees.
- The CCEW is a ‘prescribed person’; protected disclosures can be made to the CCEW about the proper administration of charities and funds given or held for charitable purposes.
- The CCEW website states that you should report issues that could cause ‘serious harm’ to the people the charity helps, its staff, volunteers, services, assets or reputation.
Examples of ‘serious harm’ include:
- someone’s health or safety is in danger, for example if a charity does not use its safeguarding policy;
- a criminal offence, for example theft, fraud or financial mismanagement;
- a charity uses its activities as a platform for extremist views or materials;
- loss of charity funds, for example when a charity loses more than 20% of its income or more than £25,000;
- the charity does not meet its legal obligations, for example if someone uses a charity for significant personal advantage.
- The CCEW will make a record of your concerns, and investigate those issues that pose the highest risk.
- However, even if the CCEW take no enforcement action, it does not mean that reporting your concerns has been in vain – making a record of your concerns may help them to build a picture of wrongdoing across the charity and/or sector.
- You can report anonymously, but providing your details may make it easier for the CCEW to investigate thoroughly and to protect you.
- Telephone number: 0300 066 9197 (for general advice only, disclosures to be in writing, as below)
- Website: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/report-serious-wrongdoing-at-a-charity-as-a-worker-or-volunteer
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- There is a dedicated reporting channel for trustees: webform
When a caller reports their concern (by email), they need to include:
- name and registration number of the charity;
- their name and role in charity;
- details of the concern and the impact it has;
- whether internal procedures have been followed and the response (if not, an explanation why);
- other organisations that have been contacted and their response;
- whether the CCEW has permission to reveal their identity to the charity’s trustees;
- relevance of any evidence attached.
The CCEW do not provide people with updates during an investigation but when an investigation is finished, they will provide an outcome.
- The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (“OSCR”) is the independent regulator and registrar for Scottish charities.
- The OSCR is also a ‘prescribed person’; protected disclosures can be made about the proper administration of charities and of funds given or held for charitable purposes in Scotland.
- The OSCR’s duties arises out of the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005, and the OSCR has powers to conduct inquiries and investigations into Scottish charities.
If you contact the OSCR, they will provide:
- acknowledgement within 15 days of receiving whistleblowing concerns;
- an assessment of whether the concerns raised falls within the remit of the OSCR’s regulatory matters within 6-8 weeks of the disclosure being submitted;
- if it is determined that the concerns are within the OSCR’s regulatory remit further inquiries will be made.
Once inquiries have been completed, the OSCR will provide the outcome in general terms, in writing.
- Telephone number: 01382 220 446
- Email: C&I@oscr.org.uk
- The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (“CCNI”) is the independent regulator for charities in Northern Ireland.
- The CCNI is a ‘prescribed person’ under the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (“PIDO”); concerns can be raised to the CCNI about wrongdoing relating to the proper administration of charities and of funds given or held for charitable purposes in Northern Ireland.
When raising a concern:
- You should let the CCNI know in the form if you want to raise your concerns in accordance with PIDO.
- Provide as much evidence as possible and your name and contact details for further contact and ensures confidentiality. Without viable evidence or information, the CCNI may find it impossible to investigate the concerns.
The CCNI will formally acknowledge receipt of your concerns within 5 working days.
- Telephone number: 028 3832 0220
- complete the online Concern about a charity form
If you raise your concerns with someone other than your employer or a prescribed regulator, this is called making a wider disclosure. You should be very careful about doing so, as you will have to satisfy much stricter legal tests in order to be protected by PIDA. You may also have very little control over how your story will be reported and may face backlash from members of the public. We recommend you contact us for further advice when considering making such a disclosure.
Whistleblowing in the charity sector is often complicated by the fact that many charities are very small organisations. Most small charities are well-run and responsibly managed, but when things do go wrong, there may be factors that make whistleblowing more complex:
- there may be overlap between trustees and senior management;
- close personal relationships between staff and trustees may make speaking up more difficult;
- smaller organisations may have no formal whistleblowing policy;
- where a charity is dominated by a single person or small group, it can be hard to know where to turn.
In these circumstances, it can be difficult to know how, or whether, to speak up. In a small organisation, there are less likely to be formal policies for dealing with complaints and there may be a greater fear of victimisation. We appreciate how difficult this situation can be and we are on hand to help. Contact us and we will talk you through your rights and options.
Many charities depend on the hard work of selfless volunteers, who may be well-placed to identify wrongdoing or risk. Unfortunately, volunteers are not currently covered by PIDA and so do not have the same rights as workers when it comes to raising whistleblowing concerns. This is an area of the law that Protect are campaigning to change. As it stands, volunteers only have limited legal rights, such as protection of their personal data under data protection legislation and a right to be kept safe from health and safety risks.
This does not mean that volunteers cannot raise their concerns about risk, wrongdoing or malpractice within a charity, but it does mean they cannot rely on the protections in PIDA when doing so. If you are a volunteer and you have concerns, but don’t know if or how to speak up , you can contact us and we will be happy to advise.
Trustees do not fit within the expanded definition of ‘worker’, and so are not protected by PIDA. Trustees therefore do not have the legal right not to be victimised or dismissed if they raise whistleblowing concerns. This is particularly problematic for trustees, as it is in the very nature of a trustee’s role to provide oversight of an organisation and to speak up if they witness malpractice. This is an area of the law that Protect are campaigning to change.
If you are the trustee of a charity, you are under a legal duty to report certain kinds of incidents and failure to do so may amount to a breach of your fiduciary duties. The CCEW provides detailed guidance on the types of incidents that trustees should report:
- protecting people and safeguarding incidents;
- fraud, cyber-crime and money laundering;
- unverified or suspicious donations ;
- other significant financial loss;
- links to terrorism or extremism;
- disqualified person acting as trustee;
- charity subject to investigation by a regulatory body;
- major governance issues;
- fundraising issues ;
- data breaches or loss;
- incidents involving partners;
- any other incident that appears serious and likely to damage the charity’s reputation or incur loss of charitable funds/assets.
The CCEW also have a dedicated reporting form for trustees.
It can be incredibly difficult to know how, or whether, to speak up if you see wrongdoing in your place of worship. You might be worried about how people will treat you if you are seen to be criticising your place of worship, or it may be unclear who you can raise your concerns with. Whether or not you are protected by PIDA will also depend on your status and function within the organisation. If you are unsure, Protect’s advisers are on hand to help. We will speak to you confidentially, and can advise you on your rights and the best way to get your concerns heard.
The work of charities often involves supporting or caring for children and other vulnerable people. In these circumstances, it is especially important to know when and how to speak up.
**If you think a child or other vulnerable person is in immediate danger, you should call 999.**
Note that the CCEW are not specifically responsible for the safeguarding of vulnerable people. If you have immediate safeguarding concerns then it may be more appropriate to raise them elsewhere. See the Charity Commission Guidance on Safeguarding for charities and trustees for more information.