Editorial: Transparency is the best defence

Recent media criticism of chief executives shows that charities must keep scrutinising themselves from the perspective of a potentially hostile outsider, writes Stephen Cook

Good housekeeping and transparency are the best way to avoid media scrutiny, writes Stephen Cook
Good housekeeping and transparency are the best way to avoid media scrutiny, writes Stephen Cook

It's been a torrid time for charity chief executives. Kim Hamilton of the animal charity Blue Cross resigned recently after allegations in the national press about her personal life; Gavin Grant of the RSPCA stood down on health grounds after sustained newspaper criticism of the charity's policies; and the involvement in a land dispute in Pakistan of Javed Khan, now at Victim Support but soon to be at Barnardo's, has been the subject of a Mail on Sunday story.

The circumstances of each case are very different and in most respects they cannot be compared. The common strand, however, is that charities are under unprecedented scrutiny and the merest whiff of controversy or of a skeleton in the cupboard is likely to bring the attack dogs of what used to be known as Fleet Street sniffing round your door. Any chief executive could be forgiven for feeling nervous.

But it would be wrong to dismiss all this as something that is just got up by the press. The right-wing newspapers in this country are capable of being biased and vindictive and of blowing things up out of all proportion, but in most cases their themes have a root in the zeitgeist - a certain mood among the public, politicians and chattering classes. Charities have to face the fact that nowadays they are not so often seen as angels by the world at large in the same way they used to be.

The best response is a mixture of good housekeeping and transparency. If you raise money from the public or take it from the taxpayer, you need to keep scrutinising yourself from the perspective of a potentially hostile outsider: is your activity, your spending, your pay, your behaviour, up to scratch and defensible? If it is, you can respond openly and robustly. Circling the wagons tends to make things worse and implies there is something to hide.

One consolation for chief executives is that they have the charities minister on their side. Nick Hurd emphasises in his interview this week with Third Sector that he knows what a difficult job they have. And he says three times that he wants them to be properly paid.

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