“Donors, on their part, also need to step up the pressure and insist on being kept informed before they pledge their monies” (Holding Charities To Account, Priscilla Goy).
Highlighting the fact that “just over half of charity groups submitted [an online checklist, which is used to self-evaluate how well they have followed guidelines laid down by the Commissioner of Charities (COC)] for FY2013” (ST, Nov. 5), the excellent commentary raises valid concerns about the governance and transparency of charities in Singapore. Because the COC yet to find a balance in the regulation of the sector, two recommendations can be considered: first, strengthening public education on informed giving, so that non-profits are accountable to donors and the public-at-large; and second, nudging more of these organisations to focus on outcomes and results reporting.
It is one thing to encourage non-profits such as charities to disclose more data or information, and another to encourage their consumption. Besides the self-evaluation process, there is a national charity portal, which provides some details about the charities, their annual reports, and statement of accounts. These documents are often uploaded on their respective websites too. Yet, what is less clear is how aware Singaporean donors are of these platforms, how often platforms are used, and whether they are consulted when donors decide how to give.
In this vein, levels of cognisance and usage should be raised. Charities could be pressured by more discerning donors, who may demand to know how their donations are used. As an example, Charity Navigator is one of the largest charity evaluator in the United States, and it rates organisations across three dimensions: financial health, accountability and transparency, as well as results reporting. Singapore can take the lead, by encouraging charities which have submitted the governance checklist – over half of the groups, according to the above-mentioned article – to give prominence to performance measurement and management.
Evidence-based giving can promote higher standards. The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre has published independent charity analyses for a few non-profits, and the COC has worked to develop a transparency index, though more can still be done.
Critics will counter these proposals, arguing that staff members at charitable organisations are already overwhelmed by a plethora of roles and responsibilities, and should instead focus on the provision of services to their beneficiaries. But the lack of capacity is not an excuse. How a charity is managed – and by extension, its effectiveness – has implications throughout the organisation, including the inputs, outputs, and outcomes of initiatives. If the COC needs to bring help “closer to charities” and make “information more accessible”, charities should be receptive too. In the long-term, more extensive recruitment efforts will be necessary to bring in more professionals, as well as to build a pool of manpower and resources.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.