The independence of BBC Media Action, a charity based at the BBC’s broadcasting house in London, has been called into question after it received £4.5 million from the European Union last year. The funds will be partly used to support a project to train hundreds of journalists in countries that share potentially volatile borders with the EU. MPs have expressed concern that this funding may influence the BBC’s impartiality when reporting on EU matters.
The BBC case serves to highlight the importance of a charity’s independence. In order for a body to be regarded as a charity, it must be independent. As many charities increasingly find themselves co-operating with the state in the supply of services, there is a concern within the sector that this may pose a growing threat to independence. But where does the line between acceptable support and coercive influence actually lie and is it always clear?
Questions are certainly likely to be asked of any organisation set up to carry out charitable purposes that are entirely dependent upon a governmental authority for funding and receives funding on terms that enable the governmental authority to decide what services are to be provided and who is to benefit.
Other key indicators that a charity may not be acting entirely independently can be found in its day to day governance.
When it comes to trustees carrying out their duties, it is crucial that they act solely in the interests of the charity they are representing, not as a delegate of the body that appoints them. It therefore follows that it would not be appropriate for a funding body to insist upon appointing a trustee to protect its interest as a condition of funding.
Supporting the principle that trustees must act solely in the interest of a charity, they are also bound to avoid placing themselves in positions where that duty may conflict with their own personal interests. Although the majority of charities will have policies for managing conflicts, any that do not and whose governing document actually authorises trustees to take part in decisions in which they have a conflict of interest, could come under scrutiny.
As an independent body, the trustee board must also be able to discuss their business in confidence. If there are any provisions in the governing document or in any funding agreements that affects this confidentiality, then this would be seen as inconsistent with independent governance. An example of a provision that could create difficulties would be one that requires trustees who are members of the local authority to be present in order to provide a quorum for meetings.
Although the above highlights some very general principles, independence is a point that should be considered on a case by case basis and if challenged, professional advice may be required.