Stephen Bubb: We need a national campaign to sell charity

That's the next step on the road to transparency and accountability, says the leader of charity chief executives body Acevo

Stephen Bubb, chief executive, Acevo
Stephen Bubb, chief executive, Acevo

Last week we released research that showed the public don't understand modern charities. They don't know how big and far-reaching the sector is, what charities are and what they are not, where we get our money or what we spend it on.

Does this matter? I think it does. There is a huge risk that our sector could lose the trust of the public.

We enjoy a privileged position. Charity leaders are second only to doctors in the well known Edelman trust register. But it is clear that this trust largely depends on a framework of myths about how we operate. That is not sustainable and, given the recent failures of trust in business and politics, we cannot afford to perpetuate these myths any longer.

The Impact Coalition is central to championing greater transparency and accountability in the work that we do. Acevo is now hosting the coalition, which comprises more than 280 charities and trade bodies. We intend to bring to this task the verve, dynamism and strength of Acevo, but it is the members of the coalition who will ultimately determine its success.

Our sector has great stories to tell, so the coalition must help it to tell those stories better, with greater clarity and openness.

This will improve the profile and reputation of individual organisations, but it is also the most powerful way of closing the gap between the public's perception of the sector and the reality. We can't blame anyone else for that perception gap. To a greater or lesser extent, we have been complicit in perpetuating it. Why do we keep doing this?

There is a misguided view that if we draw attention to our overheads or pay a chief executive a competitive salary people will stop giving. Yet we are a professional and growing sector that transforms the lives of millions of people. Yes we have rent to pay, and yes, our chief executives have expenses. But rather than focusing on ways to justify these costs for fear of criticism, we need to take control of the narrative and tell the real story of the impact we make. That is real accountability and transparency for those who support us and care about our work.

At its simplest, that narrative can be provided by answers to five questions. What is the problem you're trying to solve? What are you doing about it? Have you made any difference to it? How do you know that? And what have you learned?

The coalition needs to grow, in terms of the number of organisations signed up, its reach within those organizations, and its resources. Until now it has  mainly been a conversation amongst fundraisers. More fundraisers need to embrace the call, but talking directly to our donors is only part of the picture.

Chief executives, chairs and trustees must take ownership of accountability to all of an organisation's stakeholders: beneficiaries, statutory bodies, other funders, partner charities and business, to name just a few. We are committed to creating a new transparency manifesto, which will function as a clear commitment from the leadership of all member organisations that this is an agenda which matters.

We must all sign up and take the initiative to tell the public and our stakeholders about the difference we are making, rather than allowing the debate to be focused on inputs and process.

There is no shortage of tools to help improve performance and quality management in order to do that, and new media can help to connect organisations with their stakeholders like never before.

The coalition will help its members identify the right techniques to get their story told and heard. Only then can we hope to close the gap with the public and be sure of preserving our well deserved public trust. And we need now to consider the scope for a major national campaign to sell 'charity' - a  campaign to raise public awareness.

Is the sector up to it? I am not for a second naïve about the size of this challenge, but I am sure of its importance.




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