OPINION: Thinkpiece - Transparency will come clear with GuideStar

Ray Jones, a policy accountant at the Charity Commission

The concept of public benefit creates a broad spectrum of interest in charities. This, taken with 'public giving', means the voluntary sector has possibly the widest group of stakeholders of any sector.

While this is perhaps the biggest asset the sector has, it creates issues as to how a charity both communicates and demonstrates its stewardship of resources and the resulting achievements.

Charities have been under increasing pressure to be more transparent and accountable for some time - a trend we've actively encouraged and one reflected in the Government's recent Strategy Unit report Private Action, Public Benefit. But while this message already features in the Statement of Recommended Practice accounting recommendations, it has not yet influenced the sector's approach to trustees' annual reporting.

A joint Charity Commission and NCVO seminar last year concluded that charities need to get better at providing the public and other stakeholders with a clear appraisal of their work and achievements. Chief charity commissioner John Stoker reiterated this message in an open letter to the chairs of 200 of the largest charities. The question now is how this growing consensus is carried forward by us and by the sector itself.

As a first step we, together with other organisations, have been working on guidance that seeks to highlight current expectations under the existing Sorp guidelines, particularly the need to explain objectives, strategies and results.

While enhanced reporting under Sorp is crucial, it won't in itself fully resolve issues around access to information about charities. For many years, stakeholders in the US have had access to a web site called GuideStar, an integrated database on the performance of NGOs. We and the Active Community Unit have supported a new independent charity, GuideStar UK, for which funding of nearly £3 million over three years has been obtained under the Treasury's Invest to Save initiative.

The sector itself is weary of misconceptions about levels of charity fundraising and administration costs. Telling the true story will help to dispel these and could go a long way to increasing public confidence, understanding and giving.

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