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Dominic Fox: Farewell to ACO

As Dominic says goodbye to ACO he shares with us some key moments from his nine years as CEO, as well as some thoughts for the future. 

Turn, turn, turn again

When I started work as Chief Executive at the ACO in 2011 the world was in a very different place. Some ACO members were struggling with the new technology of emails and websites. Following the financial crash in 2008, there were widespread fears about the effects on charitable activities and our ability to maintain support to our beneficiaries.

It heralded a time of government austerity, and cuts in welfare and public spending on services. Charity membership bodies had their central government strategic grants cut and a number rapidly went out of business.

Charity Tribunal on public benefit

The very first issue, literally on the day I started work at ACO, to command our attention was news filtering from members that letters were arriving from the Charity Commission announcing they had asked the Attorney General to refer the charitable status of benevolent funds to the recently formed Charity Tribunal.

Our case came to be known as the “poverty” case, concerned whether funds with restricted groups of beneficiaries passed the public benefit test. It was the second such case brought to the Tribunal, the first being an acrimonious dogfight between the Commission and the Independent Schools Council on the status of fee-paying schools.

ACO mobilised immediately and put together a group of members working together on a lengthy submission and assembled a legal team to represent our members at the hearing which lasted three days. After huge effort and considerable expense our case prevailed, and the charitable status of affected members was preserved.

Safety net reprieved

ACO went on to instigate (with London Funders) a campaign to “Keep the Safety Net” when the Government abolished the Social Fund provisions for funding in cases of domestic emergency. In England, this meant the setting up of local assistance schemes by local authorities, a task many were ill-equipped and unwilling to do.

We had a rather spectacular impact. Despite failing to persuade the government to reverse its decision to remove funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes, the settlement included an additional £74 million for upper-tier authorities in 2015/16.

Common Reporting Standard

A good example of the extremely complex policy issues that can affect ACO members was our campaign to exempt grant-giving charities from the Common Reporting Standard. CRS was initiated by the OECD group of countries, with the intention to tackle tax evasion through an internationally-agreed regime for the automatic exchange of information.

It classified charitable organisations as investment entities if its gross income is "primarily attributable" to investing, reinvesting, or trading in "financial assets".  The CRS required these organisations to gather information from those in receipt of grant funding including the account holder's name, address, tax residence, tax identification number and, for individuals, date of birth; and depending on the tax residence of those account holders, provide that information to HMRC on an annual basis before the reporting deadline of 31 May in each year.

Working with the Association of Charitable Foundations, the Charity Finance Group, the Charity Tax Group and the HMRC we managed to get the onerous reporting conditions lifted for our members.

The future is uncertain

We live in a time of uncertainty. According to the latest report from the National Intelligence Council (the US Intelligence Community's centre for the long-term strategic analysis), tensions are rising, because citizens are raising basic questions about what they can expect from their governments in a constantly changing world.

The relationship between charity membership bodies and government has been downgraded by politicians in the last couple of years but do not be lulled into a false sense of security. The campaigning examples above were not in any way consulted on with the sector before being implemented and that is unlikely to change in the future.

I started with mention of the last financial crash and members' struggles with new technology. After nine years at the helm, the issues that concern us now arise from political and economic uncertainty associated with Brexit and the opportunities, or otherwise, associated with artificial intelligence and social media.

The case remains that if nothing else, ACO must remain alert to future Government policies and be ready to mobilise at short notice in the case of new threats.