Opinion: Paying the price for being coy on costs

Only last week I was banging on about how difficult it is to pull the wool over the public's eyes about charitable giving and now, through the post, email and the Daily Mirror, comes information about something called Charity League Tables. Gullible people are invited to pay £150 for information that is available free on the Charity Commission website and are provided, in my opinion, with specious comparison tables which simply do not reflect the reality of how charities work.

The Institute of Fundraising and NCVO were quick to condemn the tables, but as many readers have already found, such materials will take some time to pass out of the system. But I fear we have only ourselves to blame for leaving the field clear for enterprises like this.

When Third Sector compiled its first survey for the Most Admired Charities, I asked my senior managers to help me fill in the forms. Many have worked in this sector at senior level for years, but we all struggled with questions on financial competence, board performance, governance and management quality - the information is simply not in the public domain. By contrast, when you open the financial pages of any paper, you can read details about performance in the corporate sector almost down to the colour of the CEO's underwear.

The introduction of the Sorp helped to improve the presentation of charity accounts, though there is still room for creativity; impact reporting is in its infancy. Even if these conventions were followed scrupulously, there remains a public education job that we have not collectively tackled.

Most of us, charity workers included, hope that when we put £1 in the collecting box, 100p will go to feed the starving, rescue drowning sailors or cure sick animals. But we know that it isn't so. And, perhaps out of anxiety about the effect on giving or our own sloppy thinking, we have left the public believing it is possible to raise money at no cost, that it can be spent responsibly without expense in transmission and that managing the organisations they fund can be done on the cheap. This is not a British problem, as I discovered at the International Fundraising Convention.

Sooner or later we will have to take our courage in our hands and start to explain that much overseas aid includes a big infrastructure component, that creating a cancer care service takes months of a skilled negotiator's time, or that medical research always includes a large portion of administration.

Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

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