EDITORIAL: Accountability is vital to maintain the public's trust

Lucy Maggs

Public trust shouldn't be taken for granted. Currently, the public trusts charities above businesses, government and most other institutions.

But questions are being asked in the media and by the public about the legitimacy of some charities and how they spend their money.

Voluntary organisations, though, are still resistant to talking honestly about their achievements and failings. This is apparent in the sector's opposition to the introduction of the standard information return, which will require charities to provide two pages of information about how successful they have been at achieving their goals each year.

Charities are worried that this kind of document could lead to league tables and unfair comparisons between organisations, and the Charity Commission has been sent back to the drawing board to reassess what should be included in the SIR. Although it is vital that the content must be right, charities need to accept that the Government's determination to improve accountability means the introduction of the SIR is inevitable. In order to maintain their reputations, and that of the sector in general, voluntary organisations do need to be more open.

There is a tendency for charities to rest on their laurels. Surveys of public opinion consistently show that charities are well respected by the public. Tony Juniper, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said at a lecture at Oxford University last week that he didn't feel the public's trust in NGOs was under threat. But it's dangerous for charities to sit back and wait for a scandal to hit - or for public trust to be eroded slowly by small-scale incidents and unanswered questions about what actually goes on behind the closed doors of NGOs.

Voluntary organisations are increasingly powerful political players.

They need to accept that with this power comes the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to supporters, service users and other stakeholders alike.

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