Caron Bradshaw: A culture of openness means accepting both good and bad

We need to nurture a culture that accepts that to succeed you must also have permission to fail, writes our columnist

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

If you listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, you might recently have heard Joel Edwards, a writer, broadcaster and doctoral student at St John's, Durham, deliver his Thought for the Day. He spoke of a society in which we are increasingly obsessed with transparency, but fail to nurture a culture where there is room for restoration when things go wrong. I am a member of the Sorp Committee, which helps with drafting the Statement of Recommended Practice for charity accounting. Some have criticised both the committee and the Sorp itself for failing to embrace the reality of an increasingly transparent society in which open data rules. The Sorp's "small first" mindset ensures that most charities are not over-burdened with mandatory disclosures that return little real benefit. However, it is also drafted with the readers of accounts in mind, not to protect the charity from unpalatable disclosures, and it is certainly not protectionism that leads to any such caution.

The sector has come in for a few knocks of late and has been the subject of a number of negative stories in the press. The stories gain traction – partly as a result of the disconnect between the image the word "charity" conjures and the reality of the many and varied forms it takes – meaning that the media poses a problem to the sector. Bad stories sell – scandal, sex, anonymous insiders and selective quoting of data to paint a salacious picture of problems and intrigue are all that we, the public, want to read, apparently.

How should we engage with this call for transparency without losing our integrity? I agree with Edwards: as he said in the broadcast, we must allow "truth to stumble in the streets" and accept good and bad. We need to nurture a culture that accepts that progress is imperfect, and that to succeed you must also have permission to fail. We need to be brave.

The trustees' annual report and accounts should be clear about what a charity exists to achieve, what it did in the year and how its finances stacked up - what was raised, spent and invested. But however well-written these documents and disclosures are, they do not offer all the answers; they merely signpost a range of questions.

Dangerous game

And that's where it gets tricky, because those people asking the questions are often not our stakeholders, supporters or beneficiaries. More often than not, the questions and requests for further information are driven from a desire to dish some dirt. And if there is no dirt to dish, there's an appetite to find some. Transparency is a dangerous game. We're encouraged to be open and transparent about our triumphs and disasters in equal measure. Yet, to twist the words of Rudyard Kipling, those two imposters are rarely treated the same, so behaviours become warped.

The question our media and society as a whole need to ask is how can we achieve serious social change when we reward only success and not inspired failure? A negative focus disincentivises entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, and we miss the shared learning that the sector so badly needs.

Whatever the wider culture, we must leave room in our debate for restoration and forgiveness. It's tough, and you might have to endure a few rotten apples being thrown in your direction. But this isn't about you – it's about making a difference; so follow Kipling's advice and learn to stomach hearing the truth you've spoken being twisted by knaves. It will only trap the fools.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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