Craig Dearden-Phillips: When charities hide the facts from people, where does that leave the truth?

We don't tell the truth enough in charities: to donors, to trustees or to each other, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

I have just finished a book called Management in 10 Words by ex-Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy. I have always liked Leahy - born and raised in Liverpool, grammar school boy, big work ethic. And, of course, the force behind the recovery of Tesco, which was in decline when he took over in 1992.

So what can the third sector learn from Leahy? Well, first among his '10 Words' (there is a chapter devoted to each) is 'truth'. This, he says, means being very frank indeed inside an organisation about what's really going on - good, bad and indifferent. This is a lesson our sector needs to take on board. We don't tell the truth enough in charities: to donors, to trustees or to each other. In fact, I fear we have moved into a worrying place where we tell people either what we believe they want to hear - or can cope with being told.

Where do I start? Recently, I spoke to a colleague who fundraises for several charities. Privately, she despairs of the lying that goes on about what gets achieved with the money. One organisation for which she raised a seven-figure sum to find hundreds of specialist volunteers had managed, after two years, to recruit just a handful. But she is confident that this will not come to light because the charity doesn't want to risk damaging its appeals and bids. The show must go on. Disillusioned, she's dropping them - and several other charity clients that play the same game.

Then there's performance at work. Here we don't see enough straight up-and-down conversations about whether or not people are succeeding. Instead, we treat the workplace more like a school sports day where everyone is a winner. Our overriding management concern seems to be imparting self-esteem rather than getting stuff done. Indeed, how many people at work have you known who are blissfully ignorant of the despair at their performance felt by colleagues? Of course, we lie to spare feelings - but is this morally better than telling them the truth?

This concern with 'feelings' over truth can reach surreal levels.

Only last week a director I know at a charity was forced to attend an internal 'rights at work' hearing initiated by an employee. The employee claimed the boss caused offence by raising her voice (in response, incidentally, to some separate bad news). The truth is that this aggrieved employee needed to be told to crack on with the job, rather than indulging in a costly hearing to examine hurt feelings.

Yes, in our sector telling the truth seems to have become victim to the larger requirements of our time: to keep telling a bigger, better story or to pander to people who need to be told the score. This just isn't on. The third sector should be the one place where truth prevails. Why? Because trust is our brand and trust is about truth. And, as Leahy tells us, you mess with that at your peril.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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