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Transparency and the web

Transparency and the web
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Transparency and the web

Governance | John Tate | 26 Mar 2009

John Tate says the web is a real danger to charities’ reputations.

Looking back on my personal work on charity boards a number of things stand out. Firstly, many charities do fantastic work and have made a real difference to countless  people’s lives. Secondly, their work has been made hugely more difficult at times by the extraordinary ineptitude of a number of their  stakeholders – in particular government funders. The mountains of paperwork, bureaucracy and lack of transparency  creates a huge amount of unnecessary work and pressure which works against, rather than for the charity sector.

Why isn’t something done? Maybe it is partly because the outside world does not know about this and hence the government-backed funders can ‘get away with it’?

Would greater transparency help the cause? In this context it is interesting to see how IT is driving the transparency agenda.The web continues to open up new sources of information – whether charities like it or not. One example appeared in a recent Plaza Publishing Charity News Alert, namely the website www.fakecharities.org.

This site is “a directory of those so-called charities that receive substantial funding from either the UK or EU governments”. This site is not untypical of what can come out of the blogging community. Pretty aggressive, opinionated and with some strong language. The site has been widely visited and is stir-ring up real media interest. Technorati, which tracks blog sites, shows a number of comments have been made about this site. This includes  members of the web community suggesting  further donations are not given to some high profile charities.

Examples of adverse coverage of charities are growing in webland. For example, here is an extract from a blog in March attacking the NSPCC:

“Everybody’s favourite fake charity, the NSPCC, has been taking a bit of a kicking at its Facebook site, with home educators, outraged by the NSPCC’s linking of HE with child abuse, giving full vent to their feelings about being slurred in this way. Rather than engage, the NSPCC has first denied doing anything wrong and has now tried to kill the debate by deleting the criticism in its entirety.” Not pretty reading and of course this is only one side of the story.

If there is any doubt over the increasing use of the web look no further than the Netbook.As covered last year a Netbook is a class of laptop computer designed for wireless  communication and access to the internet.

Costing aroud £200 plus VAT and primarily designed for web browsing and email-ing, Netbooks rely heavily on the internet for remote access to web-based applica-tions. IDC, a leading IT research company,  reported early this year that 3.6 million ‘mini notebooks’ were sold in the fourth quarter of 2008, representing 20 per cent of all PCs sold. So for many the web is now the main  environment that they work in.

Charities face an uphill struggle to gain public confidence. In a report published last year by the Brookings Institute in the US there were some worrying findings. These included:

“The considerable drop in the ratings of helping people poses a serious challenge to the sector’s distinctiveness as a destination for giving and volunteering. As of October 2003, 34 per cent of Americans said charita-ble organisations did ‘very good’ in helping people; in March 2008, only 25 per cent gave that same rating. This statistically significant drop is the most troubling finding in the sur-vey.” While this survey does not cover the UK, the position over here is not great either.

Charities need to have a clear strategy on how they engage with the web. Some post-ings are clearly not true – and these need to be refuted with care. Some are true and while unwelcome, need an honest and open response. Many are somewhere in the middle and the charity subject to the comment is in a challenging position to produce a response which is given credence by readers.Is this ‘transparency’ good for the sector? No, if it adversely affects the reputation of a genuinely world-class charity. Perhaps yes if this helps sort out some of the really disap-pointing things that are going on undercover, away from the public eye?

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John Tate

John Tate is a qualified accountant and entrepreneur. He is a columnist for Charity Finance, a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness and Trustee of Eduserv. He also non executive chair of Civil Society Media.

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