Peter Gilheany: Don't just pull the curtain back - get on stage

Passive, curmudgeonly openness is no longer good enough: the sector needs a more radical and sustainable approach

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

It’s been a tough week for the voluntary sector, from the heart-rending personal testimonies in Acevo’s report on bullying in charities to the strong criticisms of Oxfam in the Charity Commission report and the furore around the NSPCC’s relationship with Munroe Bergdorf and how it handled the criticism.

What links all of them is the vexed issue of openness. Oxfam was criticised in the report for not being open enough about the extent and nature of wrongdoing back in 2011. Disgruntled staff at the NSPCC have publicly challenged the leadership of the charity for not explaining the reasons for disassociating themselves from Munroe Bergdorf. And Acevo has been praised for encouraging more openness on the problem of bullying in the sector, even though some might be wondering why the sector is airing its dirty washing in public.

Ironically, considering the lengths the companies behind them go to maintain their own privacy, social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook have created a demand and an expectation for organisations to be more open. However, openness comes in many flavours.

Many organisations, including charities, tend to approach openness by starting with a closed door and reluctantly creaking it open inch by inch in response to external pressure. That sort of passive, almost curmudgeonly approach is, frankly, old-fashioned and not sustainable any more. A more radical and sustainable approach is to start with the door wide open and close it a little only when you have a strong, legitimate reason to keep information private. That’s not enough, though, because then you need to explain the rationale for keeping that information private.

One of the reasons reports such as the one about Oxfam are so dispiriting is that so much of the power, influence and goodwill the sector relies on to create change is predicated on having and living up to a strong set of values. That’s why the sector should be taking a lead on adopting this radical openness. It’s starting to happen when it comes to talking about impact, as recently exemplified by Clic Sargent’s refreshing honesty about where it hadn’t hit its targets. Businesses such as Unilever have been praised to the rooftops for doing something similar, which is a warning sign that charities need to work harder and harder to maintain their point of difference from progressive businesses.

There’s also momentum building around openness in much more challenging and difficult areas, such as not meeting your standards, poor practice and misconduct. It’s great to see a charity such as Sightsavers, which fights for disability rights, being open about how much work it needs to do to be a more inclusive employer.

What makes these two examples of radical openness rather than just admirable transparency is that both of them outline what they are trying to do to make things better.

You might argue that all of this radical openness is pointless if audiences such as potential donors don’t seem interested in it. There are two reasons why that argument doesn’t hold water. The first is that the people who are most important to you – such as your staff, trustees, beneficiaries, partners, regular supporters, volunteers and collaborators – really are invested in all of this. The second is that it becomes really interesting to all audiences when a crisis hits and that openness isn’t there.

Peter Gilheany is PR director at Forster Communications

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