Peter Stanford: Fifa should review its internal affairs

The questions raised by Fifa's choices of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts are as relevant to the billion-pound world of international football as they are to the more modest operations of a UK charity, writes our columnist

A more professionalised sector means donors expect more from charities, writes Peter Stanford
A more professionalised sector means donors expect more from charities, writes Peter Stanford

Governance is not usually the stuff of front-page headlines, but the World Cup in Brazil has focused attention as never before on the internal workings of Fifa, the Swiss-based international football federation charged with running such jamborees.

Its choices of Russia and Qatar as tournament hosts in 2018 and 2022 have raised allegations of corruption in the organisation, in turn throwing a spotlight on its governance structures. The situation is as relevant to the billion-pound world of international football as it is to the more modest operations of a UK charity.

Fifa has four options. The first is to ensure good governance internally through its own structures. But the allegations have already led it to abandon that and instead take the second option by appointing an independent advisory group on governance, including such distinguished names as the former Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith. It drew up a detailed list of proposed changes, but – according to Alexandra Wrage, an American anti-bribery expert who sat on the panel but subsequently resigned – there was a lack of willingness to act.

The same system that should ensure Fifa is a model of good governance also makes sure our charities are whiter than white

The third option is that the sponsors of FIFA-organised events exert pressure on it to change, but they have shown little willingness to do so when their partnership offers global marketing opportunities. That leaves the Swiss government; but so far it has shown little interest in investigating Fifa.

How does all of this apply to UK charities? For internal reform (option 1), read the trustees. For independent panels (2), think external advisers or anyone appointed to oversee governance. For sponsors (3), it is donors, and for the Swiss government (4), substitute the UK one. The same basic system that should ensure Fifa is a model of good governance also operates here to make sure our charities are whiter than white.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the never-ending drip, drip, drip of stories about allegations against Fifa is its refusal even to countenance the possibility of wrongdoing. Every story in the press, every expression of disquiet by anyone, from senior players to Prime Ministers, is met by the body with – if you'll excuse the mix of sporting metaphors – a dead bat.

The sponsor-donor analogy is perhaps weaker; my experience as a charity chair of receiving billions from banks and fast-food outlets is nil, but Fifa's sponsors seem to take a more tolerant line than any donor I have ever dealt with. A more professionalised sector has led to rising donor expectations, not only about reporting back, but also about the good name of the charity itself.

Which brings us finally to the role of government – always a lively debate in the third sector. The rights and wrongs of the Charity Commission will always divide us when it comes to the details, but seeing the chaos in Lausanne gives me pause to think we're doing well over here in terms of state oversight of charity governance. Four-nil to the UK charities in this governance contest with Fifa? I'd call that a fair result.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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