Opinion: Third Voice - The voluntary sector really needs to explain itself

Alexandra Frean, social affairs correspondent for The Times

The charity sector has a lot of explaining to do. If it wants to attract more respect, goodwill and money from the general public - as surely it does - it needs to celebrate the £100,000-plus pay packets of its leading chief executives, its company cars and its professionalism.

It also needs to explain to the public why they should be grateful that such a significant proportion of their donations is spent on ensuring the sector has a robust, reliable and world-class infrastructure - and why it needs to have nice carpets and decent coffee in its offices.

There might be a small risk that such openness will put off a few donors, but surely the greater possibility is that it will reassure many more and attract new donors too? Who would argue against a Macmillan nurse being provided with a company car by the charity, if they were also aware that she or he is going to drive 25,000 miles a year in it to visit people living with cancer and their carers? How could anyone complain at the cost of the Salvation Army's sophisticated fundraising operation, if it were also explained to them that it brings in £12 for every £1 the charity spends on it?

Because there is so little transparency of this sort, the public perception remains that charities are "something to do with" unpaid voluntary work - an image, arguably, that the Government's decision to designate 2005 as Year of the Volunteer has only served to reinforce.

Out of this ignorance comes misunderstanding about what it is that charities do and, more importantly, about what it is they need. According to Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy, a significant proportion of the general public believes, for example, that charity trustees are paid, but that fundraisers are not. (If this is the case, incidentally, why not pay trustees for the invaluable work they do? Donors won't mind, since most of them already believe it to be the case.)

The fact is that the public has come to expect the voluntary sector to deliver a wide range of public services, without really giving any thought to the kind of infrastructure it requires to do this to the standards that most people have come to expect.

So how about an advertising campaign along these lines - a picture of a street fundraiser and the caption "We spend £20,000 a year on this man so that he can help hundreds of drug addicts kick their habits". Go on, I dare you.

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