Hot issue: Do charities deal with complaints effectively?

Last week, Charity Commission research revealed that more than two-thirds of charities have no complaints procedures. The regulator also condemned the prevailing view among charities that they do not need them.

NO - David Allen, chair, Charity Complaints Forum

Charity Commission research suggests the sector has yet to embrace a quality assurance and improvement approach for services offered to the public. This is worrying because wider research in the sector suggests the public now expects similar standards of service and professionalism from charities to those attained by the public and private sectors.

I don't believe senior managers in the sector have recognised the benefits of a clearly defined complaints procedure, which can add value and insight into service provision. Complaints are feedback for free.

Charities should not be afraid of honest feedback. It gives them the opportunity to improve processes and procedures and set the standards they want to be judged by.

More and more trustees are asking if we are good at what we do and if we are improving. Benchmarks are desperately needed for a wide range of charity services, and the data captured by a well-designed complaints procedure is invaluable for supporting funding proposals to trustee bodies for staff training and development.

A good complaints procedure should produce data for a charity's balanced scorecard and help trustees find out if we are good at what we do.

NO - Kevin Curley, chief executive, National Association of Councils for Voluntary Service

It simply isn't good enough that 70 per cent of charities do not have a complaints procedure. Far from being a nuisance and a distraction, complaints are a valuable form of feedback. Any kind of complaint enables those responsible for a service to see its delivery from a completely different point of view. For the service user, complaining is often the only way injustice or indifference can be challenged.

Recent research shows that two-thirds of charities with procedures in place received no complaints in the previous 12 months. I'm not convinced this is any kind of guarantee that the services they provide are good enough. Have these charities advertised their procedures to service users and encouraged them to use them? Have they trained staff and volunteers to welcome complaints?

NACVS members help local groups to use quality assurance systems to improve their work. A complaints procedure is an essential part of this approach.

We would encourage funders to make it obligatory for the organisations they support to have these procedures in place and to demonstrate that they use the learning from them to help to improve performance.

NO - John Crowther, director of operations, Thames Reach Bondway

Surely the straight answer to this question is a resounding "no". If 80 per cent of charities believe we don't need complaints procedures - and presumably some of the other 20 per cent are those that don't receive regular complaints - we must be doing very badly. How complacent can we get?

Most of our organisations are providing services to people. When I use a service - especially when I am a paying customer, like many of my organisation's users - I want the service to meet my expectations and the standards I have been told to expect.

When things go wrong, I might decide to complain. As a tolerant and hopeful kind of person, I might also have some suggestions about how things could be improved, or how a recurrence of the situation that led to my complaint might be prevented.

How on earth am I going to do this? And why should I bother if I am your charity's service user and you haven't had the decency to explain how your procedure (or lack of it) works? I doubt I would feel as if you were listening, and I doubt even more that you would take any notice.

YES - Anne-Marie Piper, partner, charity and community team at law firm Farrer & Co

I was not surprised to hear that many charities do not have formal complaints procedures, but that is not to say they don't handle complaints well.

I'm often consulted by clients on how best to deal with a complaint and invariably the charity is taking the matter seriously.

Indeed, sometimes dealing sensitively with complaints can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Having a formal complaints procedure (and advertising the fact) can often save time and effort in that it generally leads to the more efficient handling of complaints. And, when they review complaints made under the procedure, it allows trustees to put individual complaints in context, something that can be hard to do if they are dealt with case by case.

There is no doubt that a complaints procedure can be an incredibly useful tool for a charity. Complaints can not only tell a charity when or where things are not working as they should, but can also give valuable insights into the things that really matter as far as the complainant is concerned (which is not always what the trustees and staff expect). Handling a complaint well can also be a bonding experience, in that it can restore the complainant's faith in the charity.

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