OPINION: Honesty is still the best policy

How unexpected - and brilliant - that Oxfam's director Barbara Stocking chose a Financial Times interview to announce some organisational changes.

Stocking left us in no doubt that this multi-million pound charity is serious about the business of getting things done.

The interview was refreshingly frank. Her description of Oxfam as being the kind of organisation where "people like to talk about ideas, and you can go round and round in circles and nothing ever happens" will have struck a chord with many in the sector. This is the organisation voted 'most admired' in last year's Third Sector awards, now revealing that, in its own eyes, it is not yet effective enough.

The admission was important, and not only because it reflected well on Oxfam's ambitions. Falling levels of public trust mean that the sector is going to have to be more proactive about demonstrating its effectiveness in future.

In the US, where we often witness trends before they hit us in Britain, there has been a sharp decline in confidence in charities. The Washington-based Brookings Institution has been tracking the changes. Its latest report shows that the public's confidence in charities, which fell after criticism of their effectiveness in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York, had not recovered to pre-September 11 levels by the end of 2003.

The Brookings report makes dispiriting reading. But it also has an important message. It shows that most of the US public believe charities have got their priorities right, but question whether they are good at delivering them. In other words, public confidence in the importance of charitable activity is stronger than ever; it is the sector's effectiveness that the public is sceptical about.

The future of Britain's voluntary sector lies in the hands of the public.

Public confidence affects the willingness to donate and volunteer and helps shape the political and regulatory environment. Oxfam is right to recognise that by being honest with the public about its weaknesses it will ultimately find it easier to convince the public of its effectiveness.

The sector should follow its lead. Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust but writes in a personal capacity.

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