Gina Miller scarcely needs an introduction. She is best known for successfully taking the UK government to court after the 2016 referendum to argue that Brexit should require a parliamentary vote. The move made her less than popular in certain Brexit circles and even, she has said, led to death threats. When we meet in her new offices in South Kensington, she explains they were deliberately chosen as there is no branding outside.
Yet campaigning on Brexit issues is only one part of what she does. With a separate hat on, Miller runs the True and Fair Foundation, a charity set up with her husband, the fund manager Alan Miller. It is her charitable work we are here to discuss.
It does not come as a huge surprise to learn that, in this sector too, she is a controversial figure. A 2015 report by Miller’s foundation claiming that more than 1,000 charities spent less than half their income on charitable activities sent shockwaves through the UK charity sector and triggered outraged responses. Her report was denounced as not only misleading but plain wrong. Senior industry figures said that Miller had not counted investment in areas such as retail — charity shops, for example — as charitable spending. Karl Wilding, a director at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, wrote in a blog post that Miller “seems to have been more interested in self-publicity than in accurate or constructive research”.
The report called for charities to spend at least 65p of donations on charitable work. Charities retorted that they could close down their trading shops and cut expenditure on them, but have less overall money as a result. So why be anti-shop? “It’s a way of them taking money to run their central overheads and that’s not going back to the end charitable works,” she says.
“If you want to do this, be completely transparent in your reports of the costs of running the shops and how much of it is going to central administrative costs. How much of it, for example, is going to the regional managers who are taking the best stock and running their own businesses on the side?”
Miller says her report attracted nine legal letters from the big charities threatening to take her to court. She said she wrote back saying she looked forward to it. No court cases ensued. “They think that they can threaten me. I’m just not the person they should ever pick on to try and bully,” she says.
Charities should be run like businesses, she says. “There shouldn’t actually be a regulator, in my view, because [a charity is] just a different type of business.” If charities were regulated as businesses, she argues, this would increase scrutiny in a sector that she argues is struggling with the issues of overheads, executive pay — charity bosses should not be paid competitive salaries, she believes — and safeguarding.
“The job of a charity is to do yourself out of a job; that is it. It’s not complicated.”
A spokesperson from the CC says in response: “Robust, independent research tells us that the public value charity regulation. People’s attitudes towards charity vary, but almost everyone expects charities to demonstrate a higher standard of conduct and behaviour than other organisations and expect the Commission as regulator to hold charities to account against those expectations. So Ms Miller’s view that charities should be treated as for-profit businesses are out of step with the vast majority of the British public on whose support and confidence charities rely.”
Miller strikes a darker note when she says that the charity sector has huge issues with safeguarding that have gone uncovered. “If I did a report on safeguarding in the sector, the sector would be in such trouble,” she says. Instead, she is working with people behind the scenes to improve things. A charity sector insider says privately that anyone who has concerns about safeguarding situations should come forward with them.
Reactions to Miller’s charitable work from her industry peers are mixed. “I have a lot of respect for Gina,” says the head of philanthropy at a large private bank.
“I love her,” says one fund manager-turned-environmental activist with reverence.
Yet the head of funding at one charity describes her as “toxic” and says her 2015 report makes her persona non grata in organised charitable circles. Still, she adds that Miller’s Brexit campaigning confused some people in the charity sector who had previously hated her. “We were like, hang on, now we like her?”
Miller’s foundation works like a venture capital firm, investing in small start-up charities that need help to get off the ground. “We work like an incubator. We go out looking for small projects in the community who we know are at the coalface of the most challenging work.” The foundation typically supports 10-12 charities a year for a period of 3-5 years, she says. Then it goes to businesses or other donors and asks for funding, with the foundation taking on the due diligence risk.
Her foundation was an early supporter of Best Beginnings, for example, aimed at promoting mental health in new mothers. Another charity she supports is Action Breaks Silence, which trains children in countries including India and South Africa in self-defence and tries to prevent child kidnapping.
What start-up charities need, says Miller, is hands-on help from people rather than just money. “If people give in their local community . . . they can see what they do in the daytime in a very different light, so they can actually use not just money, but their skills and their services and their products, which are often needed by charities.”
She currently has a portfolio of 147 people, she says, who have offered to donate their time and expertise whenever it is needed. “I’ve even got a butcher on there. We’ve never managed to use him yet. He’s really lovely.”
“There are many, many people in the charity sector who are there for the right reasons,” she says. “The problem is, like any sector, it needs to evolve against a backdrop of contemporary issues and charities are still being run the way they were run a hundred years ago.”
The problems in the sector, she argues, include a lack of collaboration among charities that are worried that their “competitors” might take their funders and publicity.
We need to change this mindset that you just give to big names. It’s not about writing a cheque; that’s not effective enough
There are also too many charities doing the same thing, she says, arguing the Charity Commission should stop registering new charities if similar ones exist. She thinks the industry around philanthropy is a problem in this regard. “The lawyers, the accountants, the philanthropy advisors all want another foundation and another charity because guess what? We earn fees from it, from administrating that every year. That’s a real problem.”
Miller’s main concern, she says, is that smaller charities will disappear. “We need to change this mindset that you just give to the big names,” she says. “It’s not just about writing a cheque; that’s not effective enough.”
Often, she says, the smaller causes are those that it is difficult to attract donations for. These can include problems like grooming children with special needs or disabilities, or increases in domestic violence — both of which are issues close to Miller’s heart.
“Some people or funders don’t really want to get involved with this,” she says. Rich people, she says, “can go to the events and can say ‘well, I’m supporting XYZ’ and everyone knows who they are, and they can go to the lovely parties and fundraisers, and have their photograph taken with a celebrity. And so, there’s a PR part of it, rather than philanthropy.”
There has also historically been a feeling among big donors, she argues, that big charities were “safer” as they had a tried and tested brand. That also meant that rich donors tended not to bother with due diligence into where the money went, she says. Yet in the wake of Kids Company and Oxfam — two huge charities that have endured high-profile scandals — that is changing.
Miller says that she was one of the people who exposed Kids Company— the charity that closed in 2015 amid allegations of mismanagement. “I actually complained about Kids Company back in 2009 and I was told in no uncertain terms by senior members of the government that I was jealous of Camila [Batmanghelidjh, the founder of the charity].”
One of the unintended consequences of the backlash against the bad publicity, she says, is that big givers started giving restricted funding, ringfencing their donations for direct charitable work. “We had one charity who had £9m in restricted funding and £33,000 in the bank,” she says.
She is aware of, and rejects, suggestions that she is essentially a “bored housewife”, as she puts it, looking for causes and supported by a rich husband. “The foundation and all my campaigning work is my money,” she says. “Alan [her husband and business partner] keeps saying I won’t have any left.”
She is aware of her privileged position, “I do accept this”, but believes that gives her a responsibility to speak up and try to effect change. “I do have a real sense of responsibility. For whatever reason, people do trust me and with that trust, they send me things. I’ve seen some of the most heartbreaking things.” She apologises for becoming emotional, saying: “I’m really sorry, this always gets me very upset . . . I have to help them. I just have to.”
There is little chance of Gina Miller ending her campaigning, in any sector, any time soon. She has ruled out speculation she might be interested in leading the Liberal Democrat party, but in September, she launched a campaign Endthechaos.co.uk that aims to educate people on the reality of Brexit. The criticism she receives on a regular basis does not put her off.
“I’m so used to this. I’m used to it in all the sectors I work in because everyone who criticises me wants to defend the status quo because it’s a bit too hard work to change it, or they just want to do their time and move on and leave the problems to somebody else, or they’re a CEO in a lovely glass office on the whatever floor and not really understanding what goes on in their businesses.”
“The minute they start attacking me, I know I’m right. So, I just carry on.”