Newsmaker: Scrutiny of the bounty

New Philanthropy Capital director of research Martin Brookes wants more analysis in the sector, but his call has been met with a volley of rebukes.

Martin Brookes
Martin Brookes

A year that's had its fair share of controversial speeches is ending with yet another - this time by Martin Brookes.

The director of research at New Philanthropy Capital suggested in a recent address to the Royal Society of Arts that an organisation should be established to scrutinise charities' performances. It did not put him high on everyone's Christmas card lists.

The most stinging rebuke came from Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, who described it as a "headline-grabbing stunt" that was "blowing the hard won reputation of New Philanthropy Capital". Etherington added that setting up such a body would be "regulation gone mad" and would "severely damage civil society". Chris Pond, chairman of Capacitybuilders, described the proposal as "heavy-handed" and "going in the wrong direction".

Far from being chastened, Brookes is unrepentant. Scrutiny, he says, will soon become as familiar to the voluntary sector as it is to the public sector. "Performance assessment is so pervasive to the rest of society that it is hard to see how charities can escape," he says. "The question then becomes how charities engage with it."

Brookes says it is the job of New Philanthropy Capital, which helps donors give more effectively, to ask difficult questions, but not to throw aimless criticism at the sector. "We are part of it, after all," he says.

He believes that because charities receive a £1.3bn subsidy each year from tax-efficient giving, they ought to be able to account for themselves better.

"People who come into the voluntary sector from the commercial world, as I did, are struck by how unscrutinised it is," he says. "The sector can be insular, and I would like to open it up to the experience of other fields. It's part of everyday life, whether or not people feel comfortable about it."

He says he does not mind people criticising his proposal, but he adds that to casually dismiss the idea that greater scrutiny is not necessary is "almost glib". He says: "We try to base all our statements on thoughtful analysis and lots of evidence. I think we have a reputation for that."

The "glib" comment is as close as he comes to returning fire on Etherington. "I'd rather talk about ideas than Stuart's reaction," he says.

Brookes expounded his big idea in his speech last month by highlighting how TV presenters Ant and Dec atoned for rigging the results of their show's phone-in by pledging to give the profits from their next series "to charity", without saying which one or how it had been chosen.

Regarding charities as intrinsically good and not open to scrutiny is dangerous, he says, because the worst performers will not improve and donors will be less inclined to give confidently. "Charities will remain a residual part of people's lives," he says. "They will get the fag end of our attention."

He says the initial hostility to his speech was a natural response to an unpopular new idea. "Nobody likes scrutiny and assessment, and there is a natural feeling of being beleaguered in this sector," he says. "It's quite a leap to go from that state to saying 'OK, I'm going to let others in to prod and poke around and ask questions'."

But he claims many people are supportive. "I'm relatively pleased with the reaction," he says. "Most people agree the sector is unscrutinised and that that's unhealthy. People are less positive about the solution I put forward."

He moots the ideas of a conference to discuss the matter further. If it happens, whoever speaks will do well to generate as much interest in their views as Brookes has in his.

 

Brookes CV

 

2001: Analyst, New Philanthropy Capital. He became director of research in 2003

1994: Economist, Goldman Sachs

1987: Economist, Bank of England.

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