Caroline Fiennes November 23, 2016

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Listening to what people want to make their lives better is a powerful argument for employing feedback loops. If charities and foundations only feel accountable to themselves, and not to the public, how can they become more transparent to those who fund them and to those they serve? Caroline Fiennes and Emma Mashader investigate the role open meetings play in increasing transparency, you can read the full report here. This piece was originally published on Giving Evidence, and has been reposted here with permission from the author.


All charities and charitable foundations exist to serve the public good. Most of them are subsidised by the public through various tax breaks. Any company must have a meeting at least annually at which the directors are held accountable to the people whose capital they deploy. In over 15 years in this ‘industry’ we’ve only encountered two charities /foundations in the UK which have meetings at which the public – or the intended beneficiaries – can know 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, 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.

democracy-signSuppose 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.


Caroline Fiennes is one of the few people whose work has appeared in both The Lancet and OK! Magazine. She is a leading advocate and campaigner for effective philanthropy, in which she has worked for twelve years. She serves on boards of: Charity Navigator; The Cochrane Collaboration (leading global research house at the centre of evidence-based medicine); and the Center for Effective Philanthropy (US philanthropy think-tank & research house). She works with Innovations for Poverty Action and formerly with J-PAL at MIT. A former award-winning charity CEO herself, she founded Giving Evidence which advises donors of various descriptions and in many countries about effective giving, and conducts research to improve it. Caroline speaks and writes extensively about the need for and barriers to effective giving, e.g., in the Financial Times, Forbes, The Economist, BBC Radio 4, Freakonomics, the Daily Mail, the philanthropy sector press. Her book It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way That You Give It is dedicated to all those who miss out because donors make the wrong call, and was described in the press as “indispensable… relentlessly logical… engaging, informative, irreverent … long overdue… Thank goodness somebody’s finally written this book… a tour de force”. Caroline has taught about effective giving at Oxford, Cambridge and Yale. She holds a surprisingly useful degree in physics and philosophy.

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