Opinion: The agonies of trying to satisfy everyone

Peter Cardy

Writing the annual report takes a lot of electronic pencil-chewing at Macmillan. What we want to do is to tell it straight - disasters and triumphs, beauty spots and warts - but it's such a temptation to beat our chests, to err on the side of success and gloss over failures.

Trendy impact reporting actually seems to encourage chest-beating. Even in a small organisation there is a lot of information to select from: in a big one there is an overwhelming mass of it. What matters?

The members of Macmillan have a right to the report. Many are volunteer fundraisers or regular donors, so we'd better explain why it costs different amounts to raise different elements of our income. It has to be meaningful to the many people affected by cancer who are involved in Macmillan's work - a cardinal principle. The report goes to institutional and individual givers who know how to read a balance sheet, so we'd better explain why our reserves have grown. The thousands of Macmillan professionals, employed in the NHS or other bodies, want to know what we're doing to support them in their often stressful jobs. Many government departments get our report and, although we don't owe them a farthing, we need to work with them, so we'd better not be crudely triumphalist about changing their policies.

It's easy to be seduced by the Sorp into writing an essay on risk management instead of explaining how we plan over one, three and 10 years. In fact, the emphasis of the Sorp is quite conservative, a discouragement to the innovation that is much of the point of a third sector. Influenced by corporate scandals, risk management became a whole industry in our sector in the 1990s. I'm not sure I can think of a charity that has avoided a major disaster through risk management, but I can think of a few in which avoiding risk is devouring their creativity.

With so many demands to satisfy, before you know it your report is a dog's dinner that disappoints everybody. So who are we writing for? My rule of thumb is that as a fundraising charity we're spending public money, so we need to give an account to the public. Listen to the questions on the street: who did you help? How much money did you spend on helping them? How much does it cost to raise your funds? How much does it cost to run the charity's organisation? Answer those deceptively simple questions and we'll have gone a long way to satisfying all the other audiences too.

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