I am a very frequent user of the Charity Commission (for England & Wales) website. I typically look up a charity 5 or 6 times a week. So here is my review of the good, the bad and the downright ugly of the Charity Commission’s website from a user’s perspective. To find the landing page, put ‘Charity Commission search’ in your search engine and click on the option hopefully like one below.
Overview page The Commission website underwent a revamp a few years back and now has a lot more information available on the overview page. Indeed much of it is the kind of information that I would like every charity to have as a summary in their annual reports and on their websites.
Easy to understand pie charts
The first thing that greets any visitor on the overview page are two pie charts setting out sources of income and expenditure for the charity that the user wants to look at. The figures below are from Marie Curie: (all the example data from charities used here have been chosen simply because they are well-known charities with a number of income and expenditure sources. It is no way implying anything about any of these charities.)
These pie charts give a good oversight of the income and expenditure – about a half of Marie Curie’s income comes from donations (the red pie slice on the left), about 5% from shops and trading (the yellow pie slice) and the rest comes from charitable activities (the deep blue slice) - that is, contracts from the UK government and other health and institutional bodies for the most part.
Overview of people and salaries
The other bit on the home page I like is the summary of the people stuff; details of how many staff, trustees, volunteers and the like are employed by a given charity. Better still, the senior staff salaries are set out in pay bands, so anybody can see what people are paid, and how many of them.
Here is the one for British Red Cross.
All of this provides a really helpful overview of a charity’s income, expenditure and people for anybody who wants a snapshot of a charity. The fact that it is standardised lets people easily compare charities.
The not so good
Confusing pie chart portions
For me the bad side of this overview is two-fold. The first is that the expenditure and income detail is hard to understand, and the second is that the pies, in the pie chart can be pretty misleading. The Charity Commission could do something about the former; the latter is largely the fault of SORP guidelines (the regulatory framework for Charity’s finances).
If you go back to the pie-chart above for Marie Curie the yellow and red income portions are charitable trading and donations and legacies respectively. Now if you are a punter who wants to see what Marie Curie spend on its fundraising, you’d look at the right-hand pie where raising funds is a pale blue. At first glance the cost of raising funds at Marie Curie looks pretty poor.
It would be easy to think they raise £90.1 million (the red portion) and spend the pale blue portion of £40.0 million on fundraising (ie a cost ratio of nearly 50%). However that is completely wrong – the income portion separates income into donations and trading activities, the red and the yellow bits of the pie.
However on the expenditure pie chart it adds them into one slice of the pie – that pale blue. So in fact Marie Curie’s £40 million of expenditure on raising funds divides down to £23.5 million spent on raising voluntary income, £4.4 million on ‘publicity’ and £11.7 million on cost of goods sold. This changes the picture completely. It means voluntary income spends £23.5 million to raise £90.1 million, which is a whole lot better.
£4 million of costs of communications is attributed to raising funds (really? I doubt it…) and Marie Curie make a huge loss on their retail operation by generating £5.3 million and spending £11.7 million. However, I have to look at page 40 (out of 55) on Marie Curie’s annual report to find all this out.
As it stands, I wonder how many punters would be confused, even mislead, by the presentation. The Charity Commission could make this so much clearer – but they don’t.
Double counting on income and expenditure
The snip from the British Red Cross entry below shows their total income of £251.7 million. However the problem is that if you add all the separate income sources, they come to nearer to £360.4 million. Whaaaat!
The reason is that some of the income sources are subsets of others. So legacy income at £30.9 million is included in donation and legacies, and income from government contracts is included in income from charitable activities. I don’t actually know because the table of income and expenditure (below) doesn’t make it clear which sources of income are subsets of which others. It could very easily do so, so it is misleading and a missed opportunity to be clearer.
What do any of these categories actually mean? The perils of SORP accounting
The snip below is from the overview for the British Council - one of the largest charities on the register. A brief look at the pie-charts might lead somebody to conclude that the British Council gets £186.70 million from donation & legacies:
In fact, the British Council gets negligible income from donations or legacies as most people recognise the term. What they do get is a big chunk of money from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and other government aid as the paragraph from their annual report explains (below). The SORP regulations make them describe income in this way which is terrible misleading! It’s not good for the public understanding of charities if the public use the Commission website as their source of knowledge.
The downright ugly
The Charity Commission for England & Wales has a truly terrible search function. The problem is that the search function looks for any word in a search phrase, meaning that far too many search results come back.
Some searches work fine. Search for Oxfam and 8 results come back (though 7 of them don’t seem to have anything to do with Oxfam!!). Search for NSPCC and 13 results come back. In both cases, it is clear which is the ‘real’ charity being searched.
Anything without a simple unique name generates a vast number of responses. For example:
· Save the Children – 98,737 search results
· Alopecia UK – 12, 737 search results
· Mind – 1452 search results
· Children’s Society – 20,937
· Church of England’s Children’s Society – 168,608 (sic)
That last result is absurd. There are about 185,000 charities in total according to the Charity Commission’s website (though 15,000 of those are linked charities) so a search result which yields 168,000 is a tad on the high side!!
So what is earth is going on? Well it seems that the search function looks for any word in the search string and adds it to the search results. To give a good example; if you look for Alopecia alone you get 3 results - but the charity’s name is Alopecia UK which generates the 12,000 figure mentioned above if searched. It seems that the longer a search string, the more words are independently searched for. This would explain why the ‘Church of England Children’s Society’ search generates such a large figure. It’s not even clear that the search only looks in the charity name. Lots of the results for Save the Children have neither of those words in the title (though maybe it searches for ‘the’ as well!!).
In contrast, Google searches are additive. Search ‘Children’s’ and 4.6 billion results come back. Search ‘Children’s Society’, and 3.6 billion come back. Search ‘Church of England Children’s Society’, and 18 million come back – and the top one on the list is the official Children’s Society website (at least according to my algorithm). Search the Charity Commission website, and it shows up 6th on the list.
Search for ‘Mind’ on Google and the main charity website is the first result (both sponsored and unsponsored – again, according to my algorithm). On the Charity Commission website, the well-known Mind charity isn’t even on the first page (or the 2nd, or 3rd – it’s on the 4th page).
I emailed the Charity Commission manager responsible for the website in January 2021 pointing out these problems. I am pleased to say that improvements have been made – of a sort. In January 2021 I got 336,000 responses to ‘Church of England children’s society’ - now just 168,000. That is small consolation for anybody trying to use the Charity Commission website to find the record of all but the most distinctive charities.
It’s a real shame that the search function is so poor, because there is a wealth of useful information about individual charities on the Commission website. It is certainly much easier to find standardised information on an individual charity on the Charity Commission website than it is to look on a charity’s own website or annual report. With a little bit of work on terminology, explanations, and the search function, the Charity Commission’s website could be a much more useful, and less confusing, resource for donors, funders and the public.