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Reading between the lines

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If you’ve ever looked at the Scottish charity register, a quick glance can mine quite a lot of information about a charity’s history; when it was set up, its legal form, what type of activities it undertakes, where it operates. You can, however, also read between the lines of what is and is not there: a change of name, missing accounts, or out of date purposes. It is easy to draw assumptions, but every charity has its own story behind its register entry, its own history, and people who have sought to do something meaningful and positive, and from their inception to the present day, the trustees of charities will always be the linchpin to their charity’s story and its future.

Foundation Scotland and the charity regulator (OSCR) have a shared interest in ensuring that charities in the Register are active in providing benefit to the communities they were established to serve. Conversations began a year or so before I was appointed. What if, together, we can identify, research, and revitalise apparently dormant charitable trusts back into activity again by helping trustees to solve the long and short terms issues they’ve faced and get much-needed resources back into Scottish communities? In tandem, could this approach also help rationalise a truer picture of charities in Scotland by ensuring those charities on the register that appear to be inactive are accurately reporting on their activities? And so, the Revitalising Trusts Project started to take shape. 

As was the case with the English programme of the same name, the focus of this project will be on charitable trusts set up to provide their public benefit via grantmaking and which would appear to have little to no activity on record for the last five years. These 250 or so trusts make up our ‘long list’. But we know that just meeting that baseline criterion isn’t going to tell the whole story. As mentioned, each charitable trust is unique, so before the project even gets to speak with trustees, care must be taken to ensure that our offer of support is reaching those that need it. So herein lies my workload for the next few months...

Trawling trust deeds and annual accounts

Trawling trust deeds and annual accounts is probably some (ok, most) people’s idea of total tedium, but actually pretty fascinating! What’s clear from the research on trusts that we’ve assessed so far is that the journey of a trust can be a bumpy one. Income can drop, trustees’ may leave, systems change, and beneficiaries may become harder to access. It is for one or many of these reasons that trustees get stuck on a way forward and where there is an indication that inactivity may be prevailing, we will be working on a case-by-case basis to address the issues with trustees. We will support them to determine the outcome of their choosing in the spirit of their charitable purpose.

Making contact

Now to some of the trickier issues. How do we make contact with the trusts and ensure we make contact with the right people? And, how do we make an approach that doesn’t elicit defensiveness? After all, potentially receiving a letter that might be interpreted as a charity not doing good enough is not necessarily going to start a relationship on a positive footing. It is vital, therefore, that when we are contacting a trust we are acknowledging the circumstances of the last 20 months or so, as well as providing reassurance that the project is intended to be constructive and not punitive.   

Making contact with trustees should be the easiest of these tasks, all charities have to provide a principal contact to ensure that any member of the public (and of course OSCR) has a route to communicate with a charity. But what happens if that principal contact is no longer available/alive/at the same address/ignores you (delete as appropriate). Well, then you’d look up the other trustees, right? Well, not exactly. One of the long-held contentious issues of the Scottish charity regulatory regime is that there is no list of charity trustees either in the public domain or internally held at OSCR. This may make our job a little harder, or at least more protracted. 

We’ve now made contact with over 30 charitable trusts, and it’s fair to say it’s been a mixed bag of results so far.  Some trusts have responded incredibly promptly and positively, offering proposals of their own for breathing life back into their funds. a couple have responded with caution and have owned up, more or less reluctantly, to some failings on their part. One such trust was keen to point out that there had been lots of activity in the last few years. However, the charity had not submitted annual accounts for the last three years. If they had completed and submitted their annual accounts, their entry into the project criteria would not have occurred. 

So what have we seen so far? What trends or patterns are emerging?

In general, the annual accounts we are reviewing, aren’t giving us a full or clear picture. In fact, some of the trusts we’ve contacted have offered an explanation for their inactivity that could have been reflected with a sentence or two in their trustees’ annual report. Many trusts have missing components of their accounts. But most common of all is the Trustee Annual Report (TAR) itself, the TAR being the only narrative section to a charity’s annual account, the bit that tells the story about the figures and provides a review of what has happened during the year and plans for the future. In the main, most charities are not telling their story. 

Trust deeds

Trust deeds are the governing document of a charitable trust. Many trusts were founded a long time ago and the language often reflects the period in which they were formed. In some cases, there are missing pages or in part, are unreadable. In several cases, the deed was perhaps not future-proofed and is now sat with outdated and restrictive objectives or constricting powers that are hindering a trusts’ ability to be truly active. 

Getting the right contact

Most of the principal contacts for these charitable trusts are not Trustees. Around 60% of the trusts on our ‘long list’ have an agent or someone managing the trust listed as their first contact. This is in stark comparison to the English programme where it was an anomaly to find the principal contact is not a trustee.  Will this make a difference in how the project can access and support trusts? We don’t yet know. 

Who and how trusts are run and managed vary considerably, but this has less to do with the size of income and more to do with their journey or happenstance. Some trusts have fallen into the management of their local authority, with elected members acting as trustees to the trust. Some trusts were formed to be managed by various ex officio trustees presumably for their expertise. Some have retained trustees with a family connection, others are now under the stewardship of an agent. We cannot draw any conclusions on what effect who the trustees are has on the activities of a trust, as such the focus of our activity will be to offer guidance to any trustee that wants to maximise the public benefit of the trust. 

From the conversations and responses we've had so far, we've already seen some immediate outcomes. These include;

  • Two trusts are now considering spending up and closing, having reflected on the future of their trust.
  • One trust is now actively being supported by the project to revitalise its assets and activities. 
  • One trust that has been given support to wind up and has been removed from the register.
  • Two trusts are considering what outcomes they want and what support they may need. 
  • Several trusts are still to respond and we are actively following this up.

Over the coming months, the project will continue to roll out further batches of letters to trusts identified by the project team, so lots more to come and hopefully more positive accounts to share from trustees that are revitalising the stories of their trusts.