Meeting the needs of beneficiaries is at the core of the mission and culture of almost every charity, but many choose not to involve them in shaping their work, according to research published by the Northern Rock Foundation.
The study, carried out by a team of academics at Teesside University led by professor Tony Chapman, concludes that charities often prefer to decide for themselves how to serve the interests of beneficiaries rather than involve them.
It also queries the sector's reputation for innovation. "Innovation is not something that seemed to preoccupy (third sector organisations) and the balance of evidence suggests that the sector is more interested in producing continuous good practice than engaging in innovation per se," it says.
The report is based on case studies of 50 voluntary organisations in north-east England and Cumbria.
Researchers scored participating organisations in 20 activity categories designed to assess their foresight, enterprise, capability and impact.
The organisations score highest on "knowing what they are there to do and who they serve". Nearly all organisations have a clear understanding of who their beneficiaries are, the report says, and meeting their needs is a "significant driving force" that shapes nearly all aspects of activity.
But beneficiaries are closely involved in setting missions and practice in only a minority of cases, the report says: "The sector does the work it feels its beneficiaries need, rather than being particularly aware of what beneficiaries feel they need."
Charities also seem to be unduly pessimistic about the future, according to the research.