Charities feel there is 'little to gain and much to lose' by being more transparent, report says

The consultancy nfpSynergy looked at how easy it was to find information, such as the chief executive's salary or whether staff are paid the living wage, on the websites of 50 charities

The nfpSynergy report
The nfpSynergy report

Charities are better at talking about transparency than actually being transparent, according to a new report from the consultancy nfpSynergy.

Searching for Answers: How Good are Websites at Helping Charities be Transparent?, published today, examines how easy it is to find information on the websites of 50 different charities.

It says that few charities are "prepared to break free from the herd mentality" of showing as little information as they can.

"The main conclusion from our research is that charities are better at talking transparency than actually being transparent," the report says. "Put simply, we found that the positive, qualitative information is on the website and the stuff that charities feel might worry people, usually numbers-based, is in the annual report pdf.

"We do understand why individual charities are so reluctant to be more transparent," it says. "There is little to gain and much to lose from being the only charity to stick its head above the parapet.

"Without the support of the whole sector, many charities will choose not to increase their transparency for fear of negative press because of the greater ease of finding controversial information, such as chief executive salaries, in comparison to the rest of the sector."

Researchers selected 15 pieces of data that they sought to find on the websites of 50 charities, including the salary of the chief executive or highest-paid employee, the percentage of income spent on fundraising and whether they were a member of the Fundraising Standards Board.

The 50 charities were chosen to represent organisations of varying sizes and included 13 charities with annual incomes of less than £10m and 15 with incomes of more than £50m. 

Researchers timed how long and how many clicks it took them to find each piece of information; this was translated into a score of between one and five. Zero was awarded if the information could not be found.

Making a donation online came out with an average score of 4.98, the highest result, but finding the chief executive’s salary scored an average of only 1.56.

Finding details about the percentage of a charity’s income that was spent on fundraising scored 2.1 and information on trustee expenses came out as 1.4.

The lowest score was about whether staff were paid the living wage, which came out with an average of 0.10.

Joe Saxton, co-founder of nfpSynergy, said that not being transparent was a missed opportunity to help people understand better how charities work.

"Since the media storm surrounding chief executive salaries, the word ‘transparency’ has been very much in vogue, but this report shows that the claims aren’t really matching up to reality," he said. "It would be a brave charity that stuck its neck out as the first to shout about this information, but surely it’s time for the sector as a whole to try."

The inquiry into senior pay by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, set up after controversy blew up over the salaries of some charity chief executives, recommended in April that large charities should publish the pay details of their highest-paid staff prominently on their websites.

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