Transparency and accountability have become watchwords in the charity sector. Hardly a week goes by without a senior figure in the sector pontificating about the need for charities to become more "open" about the way they work in order to regain public trust.
For all the talk, however, little progress has been made.
In the midst of the storm over chief executive pay in 2014, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations published its guidance on how charities should set their executive pay and communicate the levels of pay to the public. Notable recommendations included that charities should state in their annual accounts exactly how much each member of the senior management team earns and provide the information within two clicks on the charity’s website. As our study in June showed, take-up of the recommendations remains decidedly patchy, especially among medium-sized charities. Transparency, it seems, falls way down the list of priorities for many charities.
This week, Giving Evidence, a consultancy that promotes giving based on sound evidence, has shone light on another area where charities are more opaque than transparent: their willingness to allow members of the public to attend meetings.
Earlier this year, Giving Evidence asked 82 large charities in the UK and the US, which included 20 mainly fundraising charities and 20 dedicated foundations in the UK, whether they let members of the public attend their meetings. Only the City Bridge Trust and the US charity The Nature Conservancy said that they did.
Among the big-name UK charities that said they didn’t allow the public to attend their meetings were the Charities Aid Foundation, Save the Children and Oxfam, although Giving Evidence concedes in its research that it was hard to get a definitive answer from some of those it contacted.
Giving Evidence points out in the study that all sessions of the UK parliament are open to the public, as indeed are all meetings of local government in the UK and the deliberations of the UK health regulator, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
Furthermore, the annual general meeting of a listed company is normally open to all shareholders – the very people who have stakes in a company – and they can ask questions. By contrast, almost all charities and foundations hold all of their meetings in private and very few seem to hold any decision-making meetings in public, according to the study.
Some charities would no doubt argue that opening up existing meetings, especially board meetings, would be unrealistic. For example, would it be fair for board-level discussions about a charity’s fundraising strategy to be made public, given that the information could be used by rivals? And what would happen in instances where the underperformance of the chief executive or allegations about suspected abuse were being discussed?
Giving Evidence suggests that the solution might lie in requiring charitable organisations with incomes of more than about £1m in the UK to hold events where the public can pose questions directly to those at the top.
It’s an interesting idea and one worthy of further investigation by the Charity Commission, given its stated priority of trying to reverse the dwindling public trust in charities.
Questions about the transparency and accountability are not going to go away. It’s time we found some solutions.
Andy Hillier is editor of Third Sector