Misconduct in the Scottish charity sector: The signal and the noise

Source: Calvin and Hobbes

Charities are under increasing pressure to be accountable for their conduct. This is an issue for both regulators concerned about supporting a healthy sector, and charities concerned about maintaining public trust. To date there has been little academic research on the nature, extent and determinants of regulatory investigations into alleged and actual charity misconduct; this is partly due to the difficulties in accessing and processing the administrative data necessary to study this phenomenon, as well as the relative infancy of charity regulatory regimes. Examining this topic allows researchers to “peer under the hood” of the sector, shining a light on aspects of charity behaviour that are often overlooked. Research in this area has the potential to develop the evidence base on charity misconduct and accountability, improve regulatory practice through the targeting of resources at serious incidences of misbehaviour, and dispel misperceptions around the conduct of these organisations (by providing context for media reports for example). My colleague, Dr Alasdair Rutherford, and I conducted work modelling charity risk using administrative data from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

charity-439469Drawing upon OSCR’s administrative records for all Scottish charities in the period 2006-2014, we developed models to explain two dimensions of charity misconduct: regulatory inquiries and resulting action. There have been 2,109 regulatory inquiries of 1,566 Scottish charities over the period, with 13 percent of these inquires leading to regulatory action being taken (e.g. suspension of trustees). Members of the public are most likely to raise a concern and thus trigger an inquiry, while the most common concerns relate to general governance and misappropriation of assets. Our results demonstrate that large charities (Income of £10m +), those that carry out activities themselves, and those that do not have parent organisations are more likely to trigger an inquiry; the age of the organisation is, perhaps surprisingly, not associated with this outcome. With regards to regulatory action, it appears that the largest charities are less likely to be subject to regulatory action, as are those with parent organisations. Despite being most likely to raise a concern with OSCR, members of the public are worse at spotting actual misconduct than other stakeholders (e.g. trustees, auditors).

Our results suggest that there are clear patterns in the types of charities subject to complaints about their conduct and, to a lesser extent, in the use of regulatory action by OSCR.  There are two implications of this work that deserve further consideration. First, most concerns regarding misconduct are ill-founded or minor and serious wrongdoing can be difficult to identify: in essence, there is a large degree of “noise” (complaints) obscuring the “signal” (misconduct). Second, the disconnect between the types of charities triggering complaints and those engaging in misconduct presents a significant challenge to regulators in how they promote public confidence and trust in the sector.

What does this mean for the Scottish Charity Regulator? We highly recommend that regulators should publish more detailed, accessible information and guidance on misconduct and other concerns in the sector. The Scottish Charity Regulator already engages in this activity to some extent by publishing some reports and statistics but there are a number of areas that should be improved. First, the regulator should enhance its public profile so that it captures greater numbers of complaints: there is evidence that levels of awareness of charity regulators in the UK are not high and thus there is almost certainly missing data on misconduct (Hogg, 2016; OSCR, 2016). Second, better guidance on what constitutes serious wrongdoing should be developed in order for stakeholders to better identify matters worthy of reporting to the regulator. Third, the reports and figures that are currently published provide little or no narrative on the implications of regulatory monitoring of misconduct, and often fail to place this activity in the wider context of public trust and confidence in the sector. The regulator should clearly communicate the compartmentalised nature of misconduct in the sector, thereby helping to insulate low risk charities from being afflicted by the general reputational damage caused by the minority accused of misconduct. Adopting this recommendation can address a longstanding concern in the provision of performance information about charities: the inaccessibility – both logistically and cognitively – of this information for key stakeholders (Britton, 2008; Connolly, Hyndman & McConville, 2013; Keating & Frumkin, 2003; Philips, 2013).

diarmuid_mcdonnell-200x200If you want to know more about this research then please contact Mr Diarmuid McDonnell or consult the Scottish Network for Third Sector Data website. Diarmuid is a research doctorate within the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Social Surveys and Statistics research group. Read more.

The author would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Scottish Charity Regulator for their generous financial support of his collaborative PhD studentship.


Britton, R. (2008). Making disclosure regulation work in the nonprofit sector. University of Illinois Law Review, 2008(1), 437-458.

Connolly, C., Hyndman, N., & McConville, D. (2013). Conversion Ratios, Efficiency and Obfuscation: A Study of the Impact of Changed UK Charity Accounting Requirements on External Stakeholders. Voluntas, 24(3), 785-804.

Hogg, E. (2016). What regulation, Who Pays? Public Opinion and Charity Regulation (Research Report). London : Charity Finance Group.

Keating, E. K., & Frumkin, P. (2003). Reengineering Nonprofit Financial Accountability: Toward a More Reliable Foundation for Regulation. Public Administration Review, 63(1), 3-15.

Phillips, S. D. (2013). Shining Light on Charities or Looking in the Wrong Place? Regulation-by-Transparency in Canada. Voluntas, 24(3), 881-905.

Scottish Charity Regulator. (2016). Charities, Public Trust and Regulation 2016 (Research Report). Dundee: Author.

Legal Consciousness and Subjectivity: Women’s Rights and Violence in Bolivia

main-image1Since Evo Morales became the first indigenous president in 2006, Bolivia has witnessed many changes with regards to law. At the start of 2009, the Morales government – the Movement towards Socialism – created a new constitution, which set out increased rights for women as well as recognition of indigenous forms of law. Following from this, there was greater pressure to address the issue of violenceboth domestic and political – and in 2013, the government passed Law 348: The Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence.

Overlooking La Paz – the location of my fieldwork

My doctoral work explores these legal transitions in the city of La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, using ethnographic methods. Through participant observation in a women’s centre as well as interviews with institutions and organisations involved with these transitions and the implementation of the law, the law itself is examined through everyday interactions and lived experiences using the framework of legal consciousness.  For my PhD, my fieldwork was conducted over a period of twelve months, from October 2014 to October 2015.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, my socio-legal PhD is supervised by Prof. Samantha Punch and Dr. William Munro, in the Faculty of Social Sciences. Having conducted her own doctoral research in Bolivia using ethnographic methods, Prof. Samantha Punch’s extensive knowledge on both the location and the methodology have been invaluable, and Dr William Munro’s theoretical knowledge and engagements have enabled and facilitated a deeper exploration of the relationship between law and society, and in particular the legal subject. The combination of both supervisors, with their own unique contributions and approaches, has created a much valued space within which I feel very encouraged and supported.  My development during my PhD Research is further reinforced through my membership of the Crime and Justice Research Group and also the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, whereby opportunities are offered for involvement in other research projects and team-working with other academics. Wider experience in research as a result of my membership has led to a broader consideration of important themes and issues that transcend the boundaries of research areas, allowing a greater identification and recognition of the salience of both my work and my methodology.

main-image2Research focused on women’s rights, and in particular on violence against women in Bolivia since the introduction of Law 348 has been somewhat limited, largely due to lack of funding and the recent closure of important women’s rights organisations. Regardless, there has been a growing number of women’s movements in relation to violence against women and the crime of femicide. Movements and calls for better implementation of Law 348 in Bolivia can be found through social media platforms, such as Facebook, where groups such as #NiUnaMenos Bolivia have been created, and pages dedicated to raising awareness are attracting increasing attention not only from women within Bolivia, but also globally. A good example of this is a page entitled Ley 348 – Against Abuse of Women in Bolivia. Many of the broader issues in relation to my work draw on engagements with the structural conditions of society such as gender justice in Latin America, for which Sieder and McNeish (2013) are particularly relevant as well as recognition of the value of ‘epistemologies of the South’ (Sousa Santos 2014). My paper entitled “Legal Consciousness, Women’s Rights and Identity in Bolivia” received positive feedback when presented in Braga, Portugal, at the annual conference for the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, of which I am also a member.

My doctoral research is in the final stages of writing-up, and will be completed early 2017 – watch this space for my thesis on STORRE.

ashley-rogersAshley Rogers is a PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of its Crime and Justice research group.  Ashley’s interests lie in a number of areas. Previous work at the Scottish Refugee Council ignited an interest in refugee and asylum seeking issues, particularly concerning unaccompanied asylum seeking children, and also women’s rights. She is also interested in human rights more generally and in particular on the relationship between law and society. Learning about other countries and cultures is often central to Ashley’s interests, however she enjoys engaging with human rights issues within the UK, particularly those with a focus on immigration or asylum processes. Read more.

This blog has been re-published from the University of Stirling Research and Enterprise blog.

Actor-Network Theory is neither a network nor a theory. Discuss.

Saturday Night Live (1991) NBC, 12 October


In a recent postgraduate research seminar in the Faculty, we explored the ways in which Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a particularly useful way to explore the mobilization of knowledge in medical education practice.  Since it was first developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law in the 1980s and ‘90s, ANT has evolved into a widely diverse set of diasporic practices that provide a way of looking at the sociomaterial relations that occur in everyday practices – the ways in which the human things interact with the material things, to enact the social. Continue reading “Actor-Network Theory is neither a network nor a theory. Discuss.”

The importance of a humanistic approach to drug users in Indonesia

The importance of a humanistic approach to drug users in Indonesia


My research explores judicial perspectives on the sentencing of minor drug offenders in Indonesia. Recently new legislation was passed in Indonesia which declared a ‘war on drugs’. This law has led to more people being imprisoned for drug use or drug related offences and can result in sentences of up to 5 years in prison. Presently there are an estimated 4 million drug users in Indonesia. Therefore, it would be impossible to send those 4 million people to prison, due to issues of overcapacity and the logistics needed to imprison so many people.

In my research, I interviewed 31 judges in Indonesia from different levels of court: from the lower level court to the Supreme Court.

Interestingly my data highlighted that some judges tried to resist the recent enforcement of drug legislation in different ways. The interview data highlighted that different judges negotiated the law differently. Some judges had an amicable relationship with the prosecutor and so when a case involving a breach of the new law arose, the judge would discuss a change in the charge against the accused with the prosecutor who set up the indictment.

After consulting with the prosecutor this charge was often changed to a lesser charge of drug using with a lesser sentence of one year.

Another method used by judges was their increasing encouragement to talk from the heart rather than to discuss how the mandatory minimum sentencing would apply to the accused. This has led to a focus of sentencing led by the heart. These approaches were delivered by judges making judgements on a moral basis, essentially ‘following their hearts’ on sentencing.

The enforcement of the law has been associated with the targeting of people who are of the lower social class. Most of the people charged with breaking this new drugs law are from underprivileged/poorer backgrounds and it seems that the criminal justice system now is targeting people who are more likely to experience poverty. By trying to resist the new law the judges are trying to be just, where this sentencing, led by the heart, shifts understanding of what constitutes fairness to the level of structural equality and involves calls for public health and social welfare approaches aimed at eradicating   structural inequality.

At the practice level, the Court has been affected by the overload of drug cases, and the negative impact of imprisonment which does not deter drug users from becoming persistent offenders and committing more serious offences. The notion of the war on drugs has lost its direction.

Seen in this way, I believe that those recreational drug users should not be punished at all. Problematic drug use should be viewed as a symptom of an underlying issue. Such issues relate often to social (peer pressure, isolation, stigmatisation) and economic (unemployment and poverty) reasons which motivate some individuals to both use and sell drugs for profit, or as a perceived way of boosting energy for work) or family issues (conflict with parents, partners, etc.).

Seen in this way, it is imperative that attention should be paid to addressing those underlying issues. Those related to social factors would require empowerment, inclusion, acceptance from the public and equal opportunity.  Economic issues would require stable jobs and access to resources. Family issues may require counselling.

Certainly, when considering that there are an estimated 4 million Indonesian drug users, addressing structural inequalities could be a fairer response and, ultimately, would contribute to the very meaning of justice.

Your Turn:  In your opinion, what does justice mean in relation to drug use?


cecep-mustafaIf you want to know more about the research, or wish to share your comments or views on this research, please contact Cecep Mustafa.

Cecep Mustafa is a PhD student in the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Crime and Justice research group.

He has a Master degree in Criminal Justice and Penal Change at the University of Strathclyde and his research interests focus on the ‘sentencing’ role of the judiciary in drug matters. Read more.