• 4 min read

Charities: What is serious incident reporting and when do you need to report


If something unexpected arises or goes wrong within a charity, the charity trustees should consider if the incident is deemed a ‘serious incident’ in accordance with the Charity Commission’s serious incident reporting regime, and if it is, they should report it to the Charity Commission (the “Commission”) promptly.

Reporting a serious incident is a matter of good governance and compliance with Commission guidance. It is important that any incidents that could be deemed a serious incident are reported to the Commission without unnecessary delay. Whilst the phrase ‘serious incident report’ can alarm some people, although it will depend on the specific facts and circumstances, simply by reporting is not an admission of fault or suggestion of wrongdoing within the charity – it is showing that the trustees have identified the incident and they are taking steps to deal with it and report it to the Commission. Serious incidents will inevitably happen within the sector, they are not rare, and the Charity Commission has previously been quoted as saying that charities that do not file serious incident reports could be deemed to be more risky than those that do. The important thing is to take action when things do go wrong and be up-front, honest and transparent.

What is a serious incident?

A serious incident is defined by the Commission as “an adverse event, whether actual or alleged, which results in or risks significant:

  • harm to your charity’s beneficiaries, staff, volunteers or others who come into contact with your charity through its work
  • loss of your charity’s money or assets
  • damage to your charity’s property
  • harm to your charity’s work or reputation”

It is down to the trustees to consider whether an incident is reportable. The Commission advises that the main categories of reportable incident are as follows:

  1. “financial crimes – fraud, theft, cyber-crime and money laundering
  2. protecting people and safeguarding incidents – incidents that have resulted in or risk significant harm to beneficiaries and other people who come into contact with the charity through its work
  3. large donations from an unknown or unverifiable source, or suspicious financial activity using the charity’s funds
  4. other significant financial loss
  5. links to terrorism or extremism, including ‘proscribed’ (or banned) organisations, individuals subject to an asset freeze, or kidnapping of staff
  6. other significant incidents, such as – insolvency, forced withdrawal of banking services without an alternative, significant data breaches/losses or incidents involving partners that materially affect the charity”

The Commission has published a useful example table setting out the types of incidents that should be reported, as well as examples of those that would not need to be reported within their guidance. It may be useful to include this guidance (or a link to it) within your Governance Manual or other resources for trustees.

As to whether an incident is reportable will depend on the specific facts and circumstances and may vary from charity to charity, as the charity’s resources and assets will also be a factor. The frequency of the event will also be a consideration, for example, if as a one-off, a small amount of petty cash goes missing, this is unlikely to amount to a reportable event, however, if petty cash was to go missing every month for several months, then this would likely be reportable. In addition, there are some incidents that are nearly always likely to be reportable, for example an incident in connection with any links to terrorism or extremism.

Whenever an adverse event happens within your charity, or you have reason to believe it may happen, the trustees should consider whether it does cause or pose significant risk to the charity and as such whether it is reportable in accordance with the Commission’s guidance. We would recommend that this is included as a consideration in any trustees’ decision making matrix (or template agenda for trustee meetings) to act as a reminder and prompt. When considering whether to report an incident, regardless of the outcome, make sure you keep full detailed records as to how the decision was reached.

The responsibility to report rests with the trustees, although they can delegate this as considered appropriate.

If in doubt as to whether an incident is reportable – our advice would be to report it. By doing so, you have alerted the Commission to the incident and shown that you are aware of and complying with the requirements to report serious incidents and taking appropriate action.

How to report

If the trustees, having considered the facts available, decide that a serious incident has taken place, it is important that there is prompt, full and frank disclosure to the Commission. The incident should be reported via the Commission’s online form. Within this you should include:

  • the charity details and contact details of who is reporting;
  • if applicable, details of any other regulators or organisations it has been reported to (for example the Police), and any applicable reference numbers;
  • full details of the incident;
  • when and how the charity found out about the incident;
  • what the trustees/charity have done since finding out about the incident;
  • what impact, if any, it has had on the charity, its beneficiaries, staff, operations etc.
  • what the charity is doing to deal with the incident and to prevent it from happening again.

You do not need to provide personal details and can anonymise certain details and names where appropriate (for example, if the incident involves a beneficiary, you do not need to identify them by name).

Once the report has been filed, the Commission will acknowledge it and provide you with an incident reference number. The Commission will review the information provided to decide if they need to take any action, and whether they require any further information or updates from the charity. In the majority of cases they want to know that the incident has been identified and is being appropriately addressed, but are unlikely to take any action themselves (although this will of course depend on the severity). It is likely you may be asked to provide them with an update following any internal investigation or if third parties are involved, following their investigations where applicable.

If you would like to discuss serious incident reporting or any charity related queries with one of our specialist charity lawyers please do get in touch with Kirsteen Hook at [email protected].

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