Comment: Time to identify the top performers

After ITV's recent report into rigged phone-ins, Ant and Dec pledged future profits from their Saturday Night Takeaway programme "to charity".

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

No one asked which charities, what the criteria were for choosing them or how this atoned for the alleged abuses. It appears it's simply enough to know that cash is going "to charity". This reflects a broader tendency not to subject charities to scrutiny. It was also the focus of a superbly trenchant lecture by Martin Brookes, head of research at New Philanthropy Capital, at the Royal Society of Arts last week.

Frustrated with the tacit conspiracy between donors, for whom giving is all too often about salving the conscience, and charities, which assume their purposes are so elevated that their performance is above criticism, Brookes observed that if performance varies, which it does, then not all charities are equal. Some achieve better outcomes - and spend donors' money better - than others. Because need must be matched with a means of effectively addressing this need, he said, results matter.

So funders should look for good performance - but it can't be rewarded unless it can be identified. In other sectors, there are bodies to track performance - think Audit Commission or FTSE 100 - but the Charity Commission is concerned only with a quality: a body either acts for the public benefit or not; it's either a charity or not. But what about quantity - how much is it in the public benefit? It's time we found out, said Brookes, calling for a new institution charged with producing "independent, credible and objective assessments about charities" and with making that information public.

If information is power, then shared information is shared power. Some won't like that. Brookes will have his detractors. Those with a lot to lose will remind us that not everything that can be measured counts and not everything that counts can be measured. This is not quite right, and not quite wrong. Change is hard, and it's hardest on those who resist it. But change is also needed, and it brings improvements as well as pain. The objective has to be for donations to go to the best charities, not those with the best PR machines. That way, the average pound is better spent.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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