Just two of the 82 largest charitable bodies in the UK and the US allow the general public to attend key decision-making meetings, research has revealed.
Giving Evidence, a consultancy that promotes donations based on evidence, surveyed 82 of the largest charitable organisations in the UK and the US, according to the amount spent on charitable causes, asking whether they allowed the public to sit in on AGMs or key meetings.
In its report of the survey, Transparency and Accountability of Foundations and Charities, Giving Evidence says the low number suggests "a serious lack of visibility and willingness to engage the public".
The report points to examples of public meetings held in the public and private sectors and argues that the tax relief granted to charities constituted a form of public subsidy, so charities should be open to scrutiny in the same way.
"The findings of this simple exercise suggest a problem: that charities and foundations feel little or no compulsion to allow members of the public, who subsidise them, to see or participate in their decisions," the report says.
"Without strong transparency and accountability, operating charities and charitable foundations are likely to make more bad decisions, and lose legitimacy and goodwill in the eyes of the public, as well as give up the opportunity to hear feedback which can help them improve."
The report acknowledges that public meetings would be expensive for many charities, but suggests that organisations with annual budgets over a certain threshold – $1m or $5m, it gives as examples – should be expected to open their meetings to the public gaze.
John Williams, vice chair of the Association of Chairs, said he thought the idea of opening up charity meetings was positive, but it was not true that the sector lacked accountability because so few meetings were held publicly.
"I’m not saying it’s a bad idea," he said. "Charities should engage with the public, but they do that in a number of ways.
Williams said there was a danger that an open AGM could become a "self-selecting focus group" that steered the charity in a particular direction, rather than a representative sample of the public at large.
He said charities were already held accountable by trustees, regulators, parliamentarians and the media.
"Trustees must ensure they are transparent about what they do, and this is already being addressed in a very positive way," he said. "The idea of open meetings is an interesting addition, but it implies there’s a lack of accountability, and that is not the case."