There should be a public education initiative about how charities work and how they spend their money, according to the fundraising academic and consultant Adrian Sargeant.
Sargeant, professor of marketing and fundraising at the University of Plymouth, was speaking at an event in London this morning to mark the launch of a report by the Impact Coalition, called Through a Glass Darkly: the case for accelerating the drive for accountability, clarity and transparency in the charity sector.
Sargeant, one of the report’s authors, said the public was extremely concerned about fundraising and administration costs.
"Openness and transparency is only part of it," he said. "Throwing out random numbers and hoping they will reach a decision based on nothing won’t work: we need to educate people about what they mean.
"We could get a lot more trust if we could get across how good we are."
Sargeant said the public education initiative could take the form of a website, but did not say how it could be funded.
After the panel discussion, he told Third Sector that any initiative would have to be at arm’s length from the sector, such as the now-defunct Charity Facts website.
"We ran Charity Facts from an academic institution for seven years, so that had academic independence," he said. "I think you can get the same independence from a body set up to run that, but I don’t think it could sit within the Institute of Fundraising, for example."
Kate Lee, chief executive of Myton Hospice Group, made a case at the event that transparency could give charities a competitive advantage.
In the report, she says that charities that lead on transparency are likely to have a competitive advantage over those that lag behind because they will have more trust and confidence from donors but also because they use transparency as a "catalyst for continual improvement".
A charity involved in dementia care had carried out some research into carers and published the findings. Lee said she challenged the charity to publish its raw data – interviews with 3,000 carers to benefit other charities working in the same field – but the charity saw that information as market-sensitive.
"Why would you let another charity spend the same amount of money you’ve spent?" she said. "Does the donor feel comfortable paying twice or the carers feel comfortable being asked twice?"
Ian MacQuillin, head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, said being transparent about the costs of face-to-face fundraising could sometimes provide a stick with which the media could beat the sector.
"When face-to-face gets a slagging off within the sector, who is going to take the risk or take the hit to speak out about it?" he said.
Alan Gosschalk, director of fundraising at Scope and chair of the coalition, said that being transparent could bring competitive advantages, but there were risks.
"It is completely wrong for others in the sector to criticise fundraising methods because they happen not to be using them," he said. "As a sector we need to stand together, and I think the IoF has a stronger role to play in this. We all use different methods and often the most successful are the most likely to be the most intrusive."