Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Last week NPC published an excellent report calling for charities to be more willing to publish evidence of their impact. The researchers write:
When surveyed, donors consistently say that the two most important factors in trusting charities are how the money is spent and what it achieves. For ‘informed donors’, annual reports, annual reviews, impact reports and charity websites will be their first port of call to find out what they want to know. If charities are not communicating their impact in these materials, donors will look elsewhere for those that are.
The report analyses the annual reports of 20 large charities (including Salvation Army) and shows how they largely fail to communicate the difference they have made to people's lives (their outcomes) - even though most are good at describing what they do (their outputs).

I have only one quibble with the report (there always has to be a quibble): while the researchers always name specific charities when they highlight 'examples of good practice', they couch criticism in general terms so that specific poor performers aren't identified.

Maybe they felt that naming and shaming organisations would be unfair since they were randomly chosen? Or that it would be pointless because people generally learn from good - not bad - practice?

But the mistake of this approach is to believe that organisations are willing to be transparent, if only they were shown how.

The truth is that charities choose to remain opaque because it is risky - in terms of both income and reputation - to tell the truth. If it were to name and shame, NPC would help rebalance the equation by making it more costly for charities to avoid publishing their outcomes.

PS Check out OpenCharities - hopefully the seed of a new platform for collaborating about charity outcomes.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Haddads and Haddad-nots

The Institute of Development Studies today released a report based on a survey of people in the UK.

The press release seems bland enough but IDS Director Lawrence Haddad's quote contains slippery logic:
This survey suggests development charities and the Government need to take a fresh approach to engaging with the public about aid. We need to hear more from the people whose lives have been changed by aid. We should do more to understand what UK taxpayers' need to hear to be convinced that aid works. And we need to be honest about what works and what doesn't, so we can learn for the future.

I actually think the opposite is true:

We need to hear more from the people whose lives were not changed by aid. UK taxpayers should do more to understand what the aid sector needs to hear to be convinced that there is a transparency problem. We need to demand information about what works and what doesn't, so that we ensure that the aid sector learns from the past.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Won't somebody please think of the children?

After every high there is a comedown.

Yesterday I uploaded Oxfam's spending data but today I received a reply from Save the Children, repeating their refusal to publish what they fund.

Frankly I consider their argument to be absurd:
I have investigated this further for you and for security reasons we wouldn't be able to give you the names and locations of our overseas projects. If we were to make this information public it could put our overseas staff and the children within our projects at risk.
The problem with making the 'security argument' is that lots of things could put people at risk. Inevitably we have to draw the line and say that the likely benefits of action outweigh the potential risks.

In any case it would be reasonable for Save the Children to choose not to disclose details about a minority of projects if they were particularly sensitive (this is what Oxfam have done).

One can't help but think that there are more risks to the NGO's reputation than there are to children's lives. In fact, it's more likely that children's lives would be improved if aid agencies embraced transparency, rather than cowered from it.