Transparency and impact are charities' best defence

We have an obligation to make it easy for those who support us to understand what we do, writes Caron Bradshaw

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

Can we expect a less bumpy ride in 2014? I'd love to say yes, but I believe we face our greatest period of challenge. Criticism is not new to us, but 2013 saw the convergence of a number of elements - all with the common thread of 'trust and confidence'. I can't help feeling that much of the criticism was over-baked and, in many ways, nothing new; but I sense a changing tone and frequency.

As the business consultant and PR lecturer Trevor Morris said at the CFG's risk conference in November: "I get a very real sense that charities are not seen as innocent any more". We need to brace ourselves for greater scrutiny and to welcome it. Scrutiny gives us an opportunity to share what we do and an opportunity to explore ways to improve.

Allegations spanned from charities propping up their pension funds with donations to chief executives getting fat on the generosity of supporters, and there has been criticism of the way we invest and spend the money we receive. Maybe it's to be expected and it will eventually blow over. But I suggest we don't take our chances. We have two powerful tools at our disposal - transparency and impact. We should be making sure we use both to their full potential.

We have an obligation to be transparent - to make it easy for those who support us or rely on us to understand what we do and why we do it. We have nothing to hide. These disclosures won't always win us friends, but if we don't stand by what we do or, worse, try to fudge the position in the hope we can keep everyone on side, then we risk more fundamental damage. You cannot please all the people all the time.

A wise man once said to me that if you let a void exist, others will seek to fill it. If we don't want those who support and engage with us asking the 'wrong' questions and concluding things about us on the back of tabloid-style coverage, we need to explain what we do, why we do it and the difference it makes. Put simply - impact. Yet many still struggle with the concept, some find it difficult to start or progress on their journey and some don't believe it's worth the effort. I'd say this is not something you have to do alone and it is worth the effort.

We bring together charities from across the spectrum to explore methods and good practice, and to learn from their peers. If you want proof of this, you need only be a fly on the wall during the excited debate at our annual Impact Leadership Conference, held in partnership with the think tank New Philanthropy Capital. (The next one will be held later this month.)

Impact might not drive up donations, and it might not change the profile of your own donor base one bit. But it will help you and those around you to change the narrative around charity. A powerful response to criticism is to demonstrate the good we do, the efficient way in which we operate and the continuous improvement we seek. Transparency and impact will put us back on the front foot. So let's reclaim our rightful ownership of social change - let's not let 2014 unfold in the negative vein we endured in 2013.

Caron Bradshaw, is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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