The Office of the Jersey Charity Commissioner is open, but staff have been turned towards helping in the efforts of the public service to address the crisis. We will however, still be monitoring emails and picking up voicemail, so please bear with us as it may just take a little longer than usual to respond.
There are many sources of information about COVID-19. All charities should read the guidance from the Government of Jersey, which is updated regularly.
A variety of questions have already been put to us and this note endeavours to deal briefly with the main ones. The answers proffered do not all rely on the direct exercise of the Commissioner’s powers under the Charities Law but, rather, rely quite a bit on the notion of common sense with which the Guidance on the operation of the Law is deliberately imbued.
Several charities have already indicated the problems they are facing, or shortly could do so, from the abrupt abeyance of income from fundraising through sales, events and so on. What should they do:
- it is quite in order to draw on reserves, if available. A crisis like the present one is exactly what reserves are for, and the Government is showing the way on this on behalf of taxpayers. Charity governors must act in the interest of their charities at all times. It is hard to see how any action to seek to sustain a charity through the hardest of times could be other than in that interest, but it is, of course, a judgement that charity governors themselves must make. This is the more important if the charity is delivering a contracted public service whose immediate continuation is necessary for the present situation but in such a case there is no reason to suppose but that grant payments from taxpayers funds will continue as usual
- some charities have few reserves and generally spend all or most of what they receive in private donations on delivering their public benefit. If those donations or some of them have been secured for this year and are in the bank, well and good but, notwithstanding, charities may judge that their activities should be scaled back for the time being, not least in order to preserve cash; and in some instances there will be no option but to put various programmes on hold in order to comply with advice on keeping a distance and non-essential travel. This might be for financial reasons, reasons of financial prudence or simply because volunteers cannot journey to their work or mingle or gather on arrival. In all such cases charities can be assured that this will not affect the judgement I have to make for charity test purposes about the continuing delivery of public benefit to a reasonable degree. I have spelt this out more formally in a special note in Guidance Note 4 on Annual Returns, which is available on the website
- charities are businesses, albeit with a public rather than a private character, and it is my clear view that they should be as eligible for whatever support measures for business are introduced by the Government as any other. Some of these, such as postponement of tax payments, are of universal effect anyway. I have made this view clear to the ministry as policy is developed
- a fair number of registered charities are grant-givers. That is their charitable purpose. I am confident that their governors will rise to the challenges that may be faced not only by their existing donees, but others too that wish or need to make a case for special support
Status of charities
As is well-known in the charity sector, not all the 500 or so applications for registration we have received since 2018 have yet been determined. About 100 remain, with all of which we are in communication about their applications. It has been said by some that those 100 could be disadvantaged through being unable to apply for certain funds available but to registered charities. No such case, however, has so far been brought to my attention beyond the generalisation. If it is, I shall look into it with utter promptitude, taking account of the evidence presented. It may well be possible to speed up certain determinations. But I need to say too that many of the undetermined cases relate to entities where I have asked them for further information about their applications since it is not clear that the charity test is met; and in quite a number of cases the information requested, which is often likely to be quite simple in nature, it has not yet been forthcoming. Where I am able to accelerate a case for favourable determination, over and above our normal rate of progress, I shall; but I cannot, and shall not, ride roughshod, so to speak, over the charity test, and I am sure everyone, not only in the charity sector, will understand why I say that. Individual applicants should get in touch with me, please, if any issue of the kind addressed in this paragraph chances to arise. We are a small enough organisation to be able to respond to such requests with expedition.
Matters of due process
The crisis is likely to have an impact on matters of process such as the holding of an AGM. This might make it difficult for annual returns and accounts to be signed off. In turn this could delay or otherwise affect annual returns.
Where it would not be possible to hold a meeting in the usual manner, doing so by means of the internet could be a good option. Some charities have specific provisions in their governing documents to allow meetings to take place over the telephone or using digital solutions. In the current situation, however, it is all right for all charities to proceed in such a manner, if they can, regardless of what is, or is not, said on the subject in a constitution. If an AGM or other significant meeting cannot be held, my advice to charity governors is to worry not. Get in touch with us if you will, but please simply apply common sense and a good deal of prudence in line with Government advice.
Please do, however, try to get your annual returns to us on time since this ensures that the integrity of the public register is maintained. The requirements are explained at Guidance Note 4 on our website; it is not a complicated process and is to be done completely electronically or on paper, within two months of the registration anniversary. (Automatic reminders are sent.) But if achieving this is truly inhibited by the crisis, please let us know by email and we shall ensure that no ‘late’ flag is placed on the register, as would otherwise normally be the case.
The sphere of registered charities in our civil society is large and diverse, and there are bound to be all sorts of issues and problems that may arise for charities during the next period not anticipated or remarked now. Please do ring up or send a message if a particular problem arises, and we shall do our best to assist or advise. But please, too and above all, do keep on following official guidance.
John Mills CBE
Jersey Charity Commissioner
25 March 2020