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By Martin Barrow

25 November 2015
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Journalists have been making hay with stories about poor governance and transparency, and for once charities are not in the firing line. The police, Whitehall, the NHS, universities and GPs have all be taken to task for benefitting from financial arrangements funded by the taxpayer and hidden from the public eye.

The headlines make unpleasant reading for all those involved, and MPs will wag a finger in disgust while promising to ask questions in the Commons. The bemused taxpayer, having heard it all before, is left feeling powerless to act in the face of this abuse of their trust. After all, these are the providers of essential public services, not some nice-to-have optional extra.

The public’s relationship with charities, of course, is very different. Charities exist to do good things and donors put their hand in their pocket to help them fulfil that mission. But a charity’s licence to operate depends on a standard of conduct that, though difficult to define, is immeasurably higher than standards applied to the public sector or to business.

That may not be right, or even fair. But it is so. And when journalists expose mismanagement at a charity members of the public are able to inflict punishment instantly by cancelling donations and encouraging relatives and friends to do the same. They exact revenge in a way that simply isn’t possible when a business or a public service falls foul. Sure, you could move your bank account or change your electricity company. But you probably won’t, because it is too much hassle. And with millions of customers, would they even miss you? So, what’s the point? But for a charity the loss of donors can be catastrophic.

Within the charity sector there is growing frustration at the inability to produce a coherent response to the criticism that has appeared, and will continue to appear, in the media. The most recent embodiment of this is a commitment by ACEVO and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to work together to promote the positive impact of the voluntary sector among the public and journalists.

This move is to be applauded, for there are plenty of good, positive stories to be told. But these efforts will count for little unless charities really do get their house in order. They must embrace the best model of corporate governance known to business, and then do even more. They can’t message their way out of trouble, with a press statement issued in the name of the chief executive. Absolute transparency is essential and unavoidable, through an open and continuous conversation with all stakeholders. If something is going wrong, with governance or service provision, a charity should assume that it is being discussed somewhere on social media. To whom does a charity belong? If it belongs to anyone, it is to donors and service users, so they must be provided with the information they need to evaluate its performance. Trustees are their representatives on the board and should be agents of change when change is needed.

This needs a different communications approach. Comms teams should no longer see themselves as gatekeepers but as information hubs, there to facilitate that open conversation. Journalists fishing for stories should be pleasantly surprised to learn that all the information they are looking for, even the awkward stuff, can be found on the website.

Nobody expects charities to get everything right, all the time. It becomes toxic only when the information is made public via a journalist. Stories about fundraising call centres are a case in point: if stakeholders had the opportunity to consider (and probably reject) the use of call centres, the Etherington review of fundraising regulation might even have been avoided.

Charities are bound to think that they are being targeted by journalists. But as a former News Editor of The Times I can tell them that they are wrong. As recent stories show, journalists are keen to shine a light on financial mismanagement and poor governance wherever it takes place. Some charities happen to make it easier for them.