Eyewitness: turkey sausages and the great transparency debate

Susannah Birkwood hears three sector figures discuss public trust and whether charities should publish the salaries of senior staff

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

When Lord Hodgson reviewed the Charities Act 2006 three years ago, he made 115 recommendations for improving the sector. When he finished this project, he went on to a party where he met a woman who asked him if he knew anything about charities. He admitted he did - with as little irony as possible - and the woman told him she'd just joined her local hospice as a volunteer. "It's not going very well," she said. "Some idiot has produced a report with 115 recommendations for the sector."

Lord Hodgson told this tale while sitting with sector leaders on a panel discussing transparency at the Directory of Social Change's Charity Law Conference last week. The discussion touched on the negative portrayal of the sector in the mainstream press and on the amount that should be revealed about senior staff pay. On the topic of transparency - the raison d'etre of the debate - Debra Allcock Tyler (left), the chief executive of the DSC, initially gave the impression that the subject could be dealt with in two minutes flat.

"Is the sector transparent? Yes, if you can be arsed to go to a footnote on page 17 of the accounts," she put it delicately. "I'm not sure why we're having this conversation."

Allcock Tyler nevertheless had a novel way of illustrating the idea that the data charities make available about themselves must be given in context. She brandished a large chicken and turkey sausage and cited the percentage of each ingredient in the product, making the valid point that without knowing the exact effect that each ingredient would have on her (would it make her fat? Would it kill her?), the data was meaningless.

Martyn Lewis, the chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, gave several more concrete examples. He spoke of a complaint he had received about a hospice chief executive earning £120,000 a year. When the NCVO reviewed the case, it turned out it was actually the charity's chief medical officer who earned this amount, while the chief executive earned £70,000. The hospice hadn't specified who earned what salary - something the NCVO wants to see happen across the sector - so the donor had assumed what they'd wanted from the data available. Little did they know the £120,000 salary was the going rate for an equivalent role working for the NHS.

In another case Lewis recalled, a complaint about chief executive pay was made concerning a charity that didn't have any donors (it earned all of its income by winning contracts).

Allcock Tyler responded by saying the sector was in danger of treating the public as if they were stupid and was worrying too much about the effect the media furore over chief executive pay would have on donors' perceptions.

He might not have said it last, but there was a sense that Lord Hodgson had the last word - as he pointed out, more than 75 per cent of his 115 recommendations have been approved by the government and will become reality.

On the subject of what charities should disclose to the public, he said they should imagine being in a court of law. "Imagine you're being cross-examined by a really skilful QC," he said. "If there are things about your organisation you'd feel embarrassed or defensive about answering, those are the things that you should probably be disclosing."

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