OPINION: At last, SIR lets us show off our value to public

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

Another New Year, another new acronym! First off the blocks, and where the smart money should be for Acronym of the Year, is SIR.

Before you start guessing, it's nothing to do with the Inland Revenue and its 31 January deadlines, nor the New Year's honours list. SIR stands for Standard Information Return. And yes, I know that immediately makes you think of tax again, but bear with me because SIR is what the not-for-profit world has been missing for a long time.

The Strategy Unit Report recommended, and the Government agreed, that the largest charities should complete an annual SIR, which goes beyond the mandatory level of financial reporting. The new SIR will require charities to provide qualitative, as well as quantitative, information about how they go about their business.

Of course the financial bottom line is important, but it presents a one-dimensional view of a charity's activities. It shows where the money comes from and where it is spent, but not how effectively it has been deployed to meet the charity's aims and goals. Neither does it provide information about the involvement of stakeholders in establishing and appraising the work of the charity. This is left, at best, assumed.

These days, when the public is more curious about how its donations are utilised, and when service users have a growing voice, we could and should do better. We need to tell our own story, develop our own accountability.

If we don't, as Bertrand Russell said, "in the absence of good grounds for belief, (man) will be satisfied with bad ones."

The draft Charities Bill's introduction of the Standard Information Return is an opportunity for us to provide good grounds for belief in our work, and we should grasp it with alacrity.

The Charity Commission and NCVO are already working together to ensure wide consultation and the involvement of both the public and charities to determine the shape and substance of this new vehicle. And, of course, to ensure a synergy and harmonisation with SORP - the fewer forms the better!

And combined with Guidestar, the SIR will encourage greater transparency and prove effectiveness, thereby helping charities to win the public's trust.

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