Beth Williams: Why charities need to be accountable

09 Aug 2017 Expert insight

Without accountability charities cannot earn and maintain the trust of their stakeholders, says Beth Williams.

Accountability is a concept that everyone supports, but few really enjoy.  Being answerable to the public in whatever form can make any organisation feel vulnerable and exposed.  Currently many charities understandably feel that the scrutiny towards them from the media and general public is motivated by mistrust and negativity, a situation unlikely to make anyone want to increase their transparency or accountability.

Recent years have seen higher expectations from the general public that all public bodies should be able to answer for their actions and charities, as recipients of public money, are no different. Charities rightly have some concerns about accountability: few donors are accountable themselves to the same extent; they don’t want to be restricted by legislation or face the administrative burden of excessive regulation; they don’t want their activities curtailed or threatened by commercial competitors, and they don’t want to be criticised or attacked by those with other agendas. However, without accountability charities cannot earn and maintain the trust of their stakeholders. The reason that UK civil society works well is that charities are largely given the space to earn public trust. Over the years, many have nurtured long-term relationships with stakeholders by demonstrating effective and accountable leadership. 

CAF’s Future World Giving Project, which looks at how to boost civil society in emerging economies, demonstrates the enormous importance of accountability and trust. An open and transparent charity sector is more legitimate and more effective. It is by being more accountable that charities will improve their positions, as a sector and individually.

'Charities should be accountable for achieving their mission'

The concern around administration costs and high salaries at certain UK charities is a case in point. It is important for charities to be open about the salaries they pay to senior figures. But the focus on this detail fundamentally misses the point: charities should be accountable for achieving their mission and doing so effectively. Reluctance to engage the public in a conversation about salaries means missing the chance to make the case for the importance of professionalism in the sector.

Organisations that put accountability for mission front and centre are in a far better position to ‘prove their worth’ and to go beyond this. This should be the driving force behind scrutiny of charities, impact measurement, and innovation. Those charities that want to be sustainable and stay relevant should embrace the obligation to be open and expansive willingly.  

If you’re interested in thinking more about how you do this, Keystone Accountability can help organisations understand and improve their performance through harnessing feedback. Their website contains guides and resources around this subject.

Civil society is so dependent on the goodwill of its stakeholders that it needs to be responsive, as well as open, to them. Beneficiaries, the public, donors, regulators and staff all have something to add. Charities gain by actively engaging with them. The organisations that we trust the most are those we trust to improve: that is the power of accountability.  

Beth Williams is programme manager at Charities Aid Foundation

Civil Society wishes to thank Charities Aid Foundation for its support with this article


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