Third Voice: Total transparency means too much information

Winston Fletcher, visiting professor of marketing at the University of Westminster and a trustee of Barnardo's

'Is it time for the truth about charities?' challenged a Third Sector article last week, reporting on two recent research surveys - from the Charity Commission and Acevo - both of which revealed the public's profound ignorance of how charities are run. The surveys revealed - surprise, surprise - that the public knows nothing about the salaries charities pay their CEOs, nor about their expenditure on fundraising and other overheads.

Shouldn't donors be told the truth about how much of their money goes on such things, the article asked - and, if they are told, will they like the answers?

But for charities the problems of total transparency go far deeper. Many charities undertake exceptionally worthwhile and admirable activities that some of their donors might not totally support. Many voluntary organisations now receive large amounts of money from government of which donors are unaware, and this raises serious questions about their independence. Few charities could do their work effectively if donors insisted on their money being spent in specific ways - charities need the freedom to achieve their stated aims as effectively as possible.

Nor is the public's desire for donations to go straight to the coalface - instead of being 'wasted' on overheads - well-founded: spending money wisely needs careful supervision, without which donations will be wasted.

None of this is a plea for secrecy, less still a desire to mislead the public. Charities must be, and are, completely open about every aspect of their affairs to anyone who wants to find out. Their finances and their operations must be, and are, freely available to anyone who takes the trouble to enquire.

But that is not the same as deliberately seeking to make known aspects of charity business it would be counterproductive to publicise. Although we live in an age that rightly prizes transparency, not everyone needs or wants to know everything. Nobody needs or expects to know how much profit Sainsbury's makes on each tin of beans, nor how much the store manager is paid. Sometimes additional information is too much information.

And if charities were to launch a campaign publicising their operations in far greater detail who, pray, would foot the bill?

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