Reflections on Panorama and charities

It’s the oldest of clichés, but not everything is black and white. And so some of our best known – and most loved – charities yesterday found themselves on the receiving end of a Panorama investigation that sought to shine a light into the workings of today’s voluntary sector. Whatever your opinion of the programme’s content, and whether you are a donor or someone working for a charity, it made for uncomfortable viewing. On the specifics, I would urge you to read Kate Allen’s response on behalf of Amnesty International UK, Justin Forsyth’s response for Save the Children, and Peter Bennett-Jones’ response for Comic Relief.

I think Panorama’s points about ethical investment have generated the most significant debate: indeed, Comic Relief is reflecting on its position. There’s great advice from the Charity Finance Group here, if you are thinking of this. Yet again the issue of overheads came up in public debate. I hate to say this, but they’ve got a point. Much as I would love to shift the terms of trade to a discussion of impact, I can’t but help think that we’ve got to rethink our either/or approach to reporting inputs or impact. The public want to know about overhead costs. It’s not going away.

All these cases ultimately highlight the difficult decisions faced by charities in the course of their work – and that on some occasions, we can all get it wrong. I’ve got entire books dedicated to that, by the way. It’s frustrating that some complex issues seemed to receive scant explanation: but blaming Panorama would be ignoring the modern media environment and seeking to wind back the clock 50 years. Likewise, we need to stop complaining that the public don’t understand charities today. If they don’t, it’s our fault. We need better language, a better charity brand. So, we need to learn from Panorama’s reporting of charities, even if we don’t think that we can learn from the programme itself.

Some of this learning will emerge over the coming days, weeks and months: but the obvious starting point is that in a world of more regular, detailed scrutiny, where the web makes everyone a potential armchair auditor, charities must be transparent in terms of the information that they provide and how they provide it. We’ve found this with senior salaries: reports that salary levels have been ‘uncovered’ when they were already in the public domain suggests we are not doing enough to communicate this sort of information. And there’s clearly a message about values: people really care how charities behave, particularly at a time when the differences between public, private and voluntary organisations are getting harder to discern. Values – and living by them – are more important than ever.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is evidence that negative media coverage reduces public trust in charities – but that direct interaction increases it. So for anyone worried about how supporters might perceive the world of charity, now is the time to get out there and talk to them. And when you do, I hope you stand up for charity: whilst I don’t agree with all of Rob Abercrombie’s blog on the issue, I do think that now is the time for collective action and to advance the common good.

Things can also go right

Yesterday’s programme centred on things going wrong. Some charities do this really well – Engineers without Borders, for example, produce a failure report. My disappointment was that Panorama could have, just a little bit, talked about the successes of the organisations investigated.

And it’s on this point I want to end. I’m not being patronising, naive, defending the indefensible, asking for a free pass or turning a blind eye when I say this. But we’ve all got to hold onto the fact that there is something inherently positive about charity and charities, about giving time and money, and about trying to deliver social outcomes. Yes, charities and philanthropy fails. But organisations learn from their failures. Philanthropists more than ever are focussing on effectiveness. Volunteers yearn to make a difference. And together they succeed. And sometimes they change the world. And if you don’t believe me, read UK Philanthropy’s Greatest Achievements, or watch these brilliant stories:

Update: links and reactions

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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  1. Pingback: Follow up on Panorama’s ‘All in a good cause’ | VoluntaryNews