All charities and charitable foundations exist to serve the public good. Most of them are subsidised by the public, through various tax breaks. Whereas any company must have a meeting at least annually at which the directors are held to account to the people whose capital they deploy, in over 15 years in this ‘industry’, we’d only encountered two charities /foundations which have meetings at which the people whose capital they deploy – the public – or the intended beneficiaries can what goes on. The 800-year-old City Bridge Trust lets anybody observe its decision-making meetings, and Global Giving UK has an AGM at which anybody can ask anything. Why don’t more?
It’s hard to be accountable to people, or to hear from people, if they’re not in the room. So we wondered how many charities and foundations have public meetings.
Giving Evidence simply telephoned the 20 largest charities and foundations in each of the UK and the US and asked whether they ever have any meetings which the public can attend, and whether the public can ask questions. Of the 82 organisations we asked (an extra two crept into the sample), only two have any meetings in public; none allows the public to ask questions.
This is about accountability and transparency, to the people who provide subsidy and to the people the charities and foundations exist to serve.
Suppose that you get poor treatment from (taking a charity at random) Marie Curie Cancer Care. How can you tell the management of that charity of your experience? Or suppose that you didn’t get any care at all because that charity has decided against serving the area where you live or type of need that you have. How can you question that decision? Or suppose that you didn’t get any care at all despite being in the relevant area and having the relevant need. How can you tell the charity that some ostensibly priority cases are somehow being overlooked? For most charities, you can’t. This seems to us not good enough.
Hence it’s not the norm elsewhere. For instance, all UK local authorities have their decision-making meetings in public, as does the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence which decides what treatments can be funded from public money.
What’s to hide? One foundation representative perhaps gave the game away by saying outright: “We are accountable to ourselves, not [to] the public. They do not fund us.” Given the tax subsidy, that just isn’t true.
Our purpose here is not to moan or cast blame, but to raise the issue and suggest some ways that charities and foundations can be more accountable and transparent to those who fund them. We are not suggesting that every single charitable entity be required to hold them; most of the 180,000 registered charities in the UK and a million in the US have zero staff. Rather, we suggest requiring organisations with budgets over a certain threshold to hold such events – that threshold might be £1m or $1m, and it might rise over time.
A US election year is an odd time to be accusable of taxation without representation.