OPINION: Hot Issue - Are charities overly resistant to scrutiny by the public?

Last week, the Charity Commission admitted it had gone back to the drawing board on the standard information return after charities condemned the first draft as simplistic. Outgoing chief charity commissioner John Stoker said returns might not have been necessary had charities been more accountable in the first place.

Andrew Brown, vice president, BTCV - NO

Charities are not overly resistant to public scrutiny. Most of them are very willing to inform the public in a proportionate and balanced way.

But charity trustees and staff are resistant to spending their time and potentially finding themselves subject to unfair criticism of the results if they see little possible benefit to their charity.

The proposed standard information return will be another unwanted and unhelpful bureaucratic burden on charities. Its advantage to the Charity Commission is obvious. It will make the phantom of "comparability" more substantial so that their computers can be programmed to red flag any organisation which falls outside some bureaucrat's idea of how charities should be run.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive, Institute of Fundraising - NO

But I suspect the question is being asked because many people feel the answer is yes. If the public want to scrutinise charities, then pretty quickly the charities will act in a more transparent manner.

But where is the evidence that they do want to know more? How many annual reports ever get read?

Most charities are admirable in their focus on serving their key stakeholders and beneficiaries. They are strong in not allowing any of their precious resources to be diverted into the unproven case for additional scrutiny when they have so much important core work to achieve.

Where is the evidence that the public want additional information before they support a cause? Do the public care that a charity working in a really unfashionable area, where they have to fight for every penny to carry out their life-transforming work, has a higher cost ratio than another that appeals to home counties grandparents with huge legacy income? I very much doubt it.

Charities should put any spare energy and effort into shouting from the rooftops about the difference they make, and concentrate on telling those stories to the best of their abilities.

Lynne Robb, executive director of finance, Cancer Research UK - NO

Charities are acutely aware of the need to be open and clear in their communications with the public. The public are rightly concerned that their donations are used effectively and they need information to judge this.

Therefore, moves towards greater transparency are, I believe, welcomed by most charities, and proposals by the Cabinet Office, Charity Commission and others are steps in the right direction.

As usual, however, 'the devil lies in the detail' with tools such as the SIR. It would be easy for the media to publish a list of simplistic ratios, resulting in potentially misleading league tables.

Charities could end up chasing their 'position' in the tables to the detriment of good management and investment in their futures.

It is, therefore, important that information returns ask the right questions, particularly since the sector is made up of such a wide range of organisations.

If charities provide information of a subjective nature, then it is vital that comparison with other differing charities is made carefully and with understanding.

It is also important to ensure that information provided for the public encourages excellent performance and achievement of objectives, rather than diverting charities from their core purpose or creating a 'tick-box' culture.

Sally Kirby, Charities partner, Chantrey Vellacott DFK - NO

Charities that I work with accept calls for more and more accountability to various and numerous stakeholders as being integral to the nature of the sector, and the need to demonstrate good stewardship of resources.

However, there is general concern that there is a trend towards increasing red tape and regulation.

Scrutiny takes many forms, and may be entirely justified - for example, where cases of mismanagement or misuse of charitable resources are suspected.

But when it takes the form of increasing demands for detailed reporting, there is a legitimate concern that resources used to produce this information could be diverted away from fulfilling core, charitable activities.

What's wrong with enhancing the content of the trustees' annual report, which, after all, is an existing statutory document which should already be telling a charity's story to all interested parties - including the public.

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