We need to lead on trust and confidence… before we are left behind

By: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine   |   Health Justice Australia

The capacity of charitable and philanthropic organisations to meet our missions depends heavily on outside support: from funders and donors; from volunteers, alongside employees often working above and beyond their remunerated responsibilities; from the engaged communities we work with and in.

Given this heavy reliance on others, we should expect and respect that people will want to know how we resource our work. Such information is a basic measure of our accountability and transparency. It is also the central tenet on which the public’s trust and confidence in charitable and philanthropic work is based.

In an age where digital platforms are disseminating information and disrupting everything around us, charities don’t need to sit back and wait for people to ask us about how we resource our work. Nor should we. There are plenty of tools we can use to sustain the public’s trust and confidence in what charities do and why it matters. Our colleagues overseas are already doing this.

Lead or be left behind: sustaining trust and confidence in Australia’s charities is my report of how American charitable and philanthropic organisations maintain trust and confidence in what they do; and what we can do to incorporate approaches like these in the Australian charitable and philanthropic sectors.

The increasing availability of reliable data on charities, including but not limited to that from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, and the emergence of new and innovative technological platforms to engage with those data, will transform the mechanisms of charitable transparency and accountability, as it is doing in many other sectors. We are in the moment when charitable and philanthropic organisations can use the growing body of reliable data about us as a vehicle to support our own transparency and accountability. This is the best chance charities have of leading the processes that build public trust and confidence in us.

Challenging the ‘overhead myth’ – the idea that charities shouldn’t invest in their own operating capacity - is one reason why this is so important. Charitable organisations need to ensure they are well run; that their staff, on whom their effectiveness mostly depends, are trained and remunerated appropriately; that their IT and equipment are efficient for 21st century operations. We also need to be transparent and accountable about why these costs are critical to achieving our charitable mission. This isn’t because it’s a requirement by law or regulation. It’s because, at its heart, this is how charitable and philanthropic organisations build and maintain the trust and confidence of the people we rely upon to do what we do.

In my own job, establishing a national centre to support partnerships that improve health and justice outcomes, our capacity to demonstrate effectiveness is critical to sustaining these partnerships. But we need to be as open to our failings as we are to our successes; as transparent about the challenges of working in partnership as we are about its benefits. If we are serious about improving people’s lives, we have to be able to demonstrate we are doing that; and if we fail to improve lives, we need to address that failure honestly and learn from it.  

How the stories of charitable purpose and effectiveness are told will be transformed either way; with or without charities at the heart of their telling. Charities that don’t - or won’t - lead in using data about themselves will render themselves irrelevant in the conversations that matter most to us: about social progress towards improving health, justice and wellbeing; and about the critical role of civil society organisations, like charities and foundations, in achieving that progress.

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is founding CEO of Health Justice Australia. ‘Lead or be left behind: sustaining trust and confidence in Australia’s charities’ is published with the support of Origin Foundation and is based on Tessa Boyd-Caine’s 2014 Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Nonprofit Leadership, supported by Origin Foundation and Australian Scholarships Foundation.

Tessa will be giving a public lecture on the findings of her Fulbright work at the Centre for Social Impact, University of Western Australia in Perth on Wed 10 August; and will be discussing them as part of a panel at the Philanthropy Australia Conference in Sydney on 22 September 2016.

Photo: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine with US Senator, Elizabeth Warren.

Aug. 02, 2016

 Tags: data

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