The Straits Times says

Making charities more transparent

In releasing a revised code of governance for charities and institutions of a public character, the Charity Council has sought to enhance their credibility. This derives ultimately from high standards of probity, transparency and accountability. Under the new code, charities that have retained any board members for more than 10 consecutive years will have to disclose their reasons for having done so. At first glance, this might appear to be an onerous requirement because it is not easy for charities to find members who possess the specific expertise required for their particular field of work, and are also willing to serve on boards.

Nevertheless, the greater social good lies in instituting a form of succession planning which ensures that any loose practices are flushed out through leadership renewal. Organisations, including charities, are inherently vulnerable to the inertia of unchallenged habit. Even when no corruption or nepotism results from this lethargy, there is a danger that prolonged incumbency can engender a comfortable culture of insularity from forces of change. That mindset bodes ill for charities - community organisations working for the public benefit - whose ability to care for recipients depends viscerally on the trust that donors and volunteers invest in them. The fiduciary responsibilities enjoined on board members reflect the critical need to engender and retain that trust - and regain it if lapses have occurred.

The code does not go so far as to accept an initial proposal, that there be a maximum term limit of 10 consecutive years for at least two-thirds of board members. Feedback suggested that this guideline was too stringent and would deprive charities of the value of the experience which longer-serving members bring to their boards. Hence, the code seeks to strike a balance by allowing older members to continue to serve but requiring disclosure of the reason.

In the spirit of openness that the code seeks to foster, charities could take it upon themselves to specify if and how they are serving the most pressing needs of the Singaporeans they are assisting. This is because every charitable programme that is run takes away financial and human resources from others. All good causes are worthwhile, but they are not equally so. Instead, there is a danger of well-intentioned but wasteful duplication that results in some needs receiving a disproportionate share of assistance, while others languish. For example, some social challenges might get less attention because these call for a lot more effort, or might take more time to bear fruit, or receive less support from, say, employers. Consequently, some groups among the needy might be under- served. The code is a nudge in the right direction, but the destination depends on the ability of charitable organisations to work together, as closely as possible, to meet the entire spectrum of needs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Making charities more transparent'. Print Edition | Subscribe