Charity Commission updates guidance for trustees of faith charities

15th September 2021

The Charity Commission has issued updated guidance aimed at the trustees of faith charities. If you are a trustee of an existing faith charity, or are thinking about establishing one, we recommend that you are familiar with the legal requirements of trustees and the Charity Commission’s expectations.

This guidance addresses points which are applicable both to the broader good governance of charities, while covering specific issues that faith charities are likely to face.
The guidance provides information on which types of operation are likely to be charitable, and therefore fall within the remit of the Charity Commission. For example, the provision of a place of worship is likely to fall within one or more of the legal definitions of charitable purposes, such as the advancement of religion, prevention or relief of poverty and/or advancement of education.

Religious or spiritual leaders are likely to play an important role within faith charities. Although the charity’s governing document will often specify whether or not a religious or spiritual leader is permitted to act as a trustee of the charity, the guidance emphasises several important considerations that the trustees must bear in mind when running a faith charity.

If a religious or spiritual leader is to be a trustee, it is important that he or she has the same level of involvement and responsibility in the decision-making process as the other trustees, unless the governing document specifies otherwise. Even if an individual plays an important religious or spiritual role within the organisation alongside being a trustee, this cannot enable them to have a dominant role. Decisions about the charity should be made by all trustees acting together.

Safeguarding is another area of importance for faith charities. The guidance lists several examples which trustees ought to consider:

  • Faith charities often operate from places of worship which are open to anyone wishing to participate in services, including working with children and vulnerable people.
  • There may be an individual, such as a religious or spiritual leader, who is regarded as having religious authority over trustees and members of the congregation. Others, including trustees, may find it difficult to challenge this individual in practice, especially when it comes to decision-making.
  • Staff, volunteers and trustees must obtain the correct criminal record checks from the Disclosure and Barring Service. Often, roles in faith organisations, given their importance in communities and work with children and the vulnerable, will require enhanced background checks rather than basic criminal record checks.

Faith charities may invite external speakers to address congregations from time to time. Sometimes, such speakers may discuss sensitive topics or express controversial views. The guidance stresses that faith charities are generally permitted to invite speakers to discuss controversial topics, but there are specific considerations that the trustees must follow. For example, the trustees must ensure that they satisfy their legal duties under charity law by considering whether inviting an external speaker poses a risk to the charity. These could include risks such as:

  • Harm faced by those within the charity from the speech itself or the individual speaker concerned, as well as the risk of harm or damage caused by potential protests.
  • Negative publicity and reputational damage.
  • The charity being used as a platform for unlawful or extremist speech.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of the issues concerned, we strongly recommend that trustees of all faith charities review this updated guidance and discuss it with their fellow board members. Doing so will indicate good governance of the charity and help to minimise the risk of a serious incident.