Seven-hundred-year-old institutions are not always the most progressive. But it’d always seemed curious that—in my 15 years in the philanthropic sector—I’d encountered only one foundation that allows the public to attend its decision-making meetings: City Bridge Trust, founded in 1282 by the City of London. More recently, I discovered one other institution that does this: An operational nonprofit called Global Giving UK—a giving platform—has an annual general meeting at which anyone can ask anything.
Given that all charities and charitable foundations exist to serve the public good, and almost all of them are subsidized by the public through various tax breaks, it seemed odd that so few even let the ostensibly benefiting public see what’s going on. So my organization, Giving Evidence, set out to find out how few.
We recently telephoned the 20 largest charities and 20 largest foundations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and asked whether they ever have meetings the public can attend and whether the public can ask questions. An extra two crept into the sample, so ultimately we questioned a total of 82 organizations—a significant pool, given that the US foundations in the sample alone spend $14 billion annually. Of these 82 organizations, the ones that hold any meetings the public are allowed to watch is … two. And the number of organizations that hold any meetings at which the public can ask questions is … nil.
This is a problem, because it’s hard to be accountable to people or hear from them if they’re never invited to speak. Suppose that you get poor treatment from (taking a charity at random) Macmillan Cancer Support. How can you tell that charity’s management about your experience of their care for people with cancer? Or suppose you can’t get any care at all, because that charity doesn’t serve the area where you live—or maybe they don’t support the type of need you have. How can you question the organization’s decisions? Or suppose you can’t access care despite living in a serviced area and having the relevant need? With most charities, you can’t.
That doesn’t seem good enough. One foundation representative we spoke with said, outright, “We are accountable to ourselves not [to] the public. They do not fund us.” Given the organization’s tax subsidy, that just isn’t true.
While I can’t tell you whether open meetings make organizations more effective— precisely because there are too few of them to study!—the few nonprofits that do hold them report finding them both feasible and helpful. Global Giving UK Director Eleanor Harrison says holding a physical, public meeting does create work but is useful because, “We want people to ask us questions and make us question every aspect of our work—this is how organizations evolve and improve.” Creating the Future, a US social change research and development laboratory, has found that open board meetings, which take place online, are a powerful way to understand its beneficiary group and even recruit board members.
It’s worth remembering that all parts of UK government must hold meetings in public, including local government and Parliament. The UK’s National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which determines which treatments the National Health Service provides, holds its meetings in public and deliberately convening them in different towns around the country to build awareness, as well as trust in its process and decisions.
One model for organizations wanting to facilitate exchange is Ask Me Anything (AMA). AMAs can be physical meetings, or held on Twitter or other social media. Both US President Barack Obama and physicist Stephen Hawking have held their own AMA meetings. Scope, a UK disability charity, ran an AMA with a celebrity supporter, and Save the Children had a humanitarian officer based in Sierra Leone run one about its Ebola work.
The purpose of our study was not to moan or cast blame, but rather 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 United Kingdom and a million in the United States have zero staff. But we do suggest that organizations with budgets over a certain threshold—say, 1 million pounds or dollars—be required to hold such events.