Friday, September 11, 2009

In Praise of League Tables for Charities

I know league tables are supposedly going out of fashion. I actually like them. For, whatever their flaws they tell us something. They satisfy our need for comparison. League tables are something people in the third sector get very edgy about. We just don’t seem to like the idea of a ranking. But this, of course, is to pretend we are all equal. That all charities deliver. The truth, and we all know this, is that not all charities do. Many are no good at all. And some actually probably do positive harm. Yet we hold back from saying this, fearful, I suspect, of what it will do to our brand (people trust charities, we mustn’t let them know that many of them are crap).

Personally I would welcome league-tables. Yes, I know they wouldn’t be perfect but that isn’t the point. They would give me an idea of where the organisations with which I am involved either as a donor, a trustee or a CEO, actually stand. Central to these league tables should be user-satisfaction. This would force charities to get some data on what users actually think of their services. Not a perfect measure of outcomes, I know, but a fair proxy that is easy and economic to find out. Don’t find out and this bumps down your rating. This would actually get charities taking users and customers more seriously than they do now.

However, I am not stupid. This won’t happen, I know. The sector is far too comfortable with the status quo to bother with any of this. Its marketing departments know that income depends more on corporate PR and flashy impact reports than the actual truth of a charity’s performance. Leaders in the sector are often cowardly when it comes to being properly transparent about their organisations. When did you last hear a charity CEO say publicly that they felt a particular programme or approach had failed or that their charity actually wasn’t the best thing since Mighty White? In truth, behind closed door, CEOs are willing to be very open about the shortcomings of their organisaiton but never, strangely in public.

As a donor this personally makes me very suspicious. I put money into organisations that tell the truth about themselves, even when this isn’t all good news. Because then I know I can trust that organisation. None of the causes into which I have put money or time would probably baulk at a league table. Openness is part of their culture and intent. It is part of learning, getting better, becoming more efficient, a better servant of the common good. We have allowed our sector to be hi-jacked by our marketing and PR departments, fearful that if we tell the truth support will drain away – or go to others.

A league table of charities would be a great leveler for those charities who deliver bang for buck – but who don’t have the PR machine to pull in the big donations. It would tell us what we needed to know about which organisations large and small actually did the business. I can’t see what any decent org would have to fear from this. So why aren’t we doing it?

1 comment:

Rob Fountain said...

We're not a million miles away from this are we? I know of one philantropy capital organisation that 'rates' orgs on the value they give to the donors. The only problem with that is that the measures that venture philanthropists use seem not to be fully informed by what users/beneficiaries feel or what 'soft' successes are achieved en route. Amount of impact for your pound is one measure, but should only ever be one. Arriving at the others the league table would report on is where the contention lies. Getting useful performance tables will need donors, charities and beneficiaries to agree on what matters most.