In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the death toll stood at more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. The scale of the disaster was enormous, and it required an international rescue and clean-up effort to match.

Donations of clothes, medication, and toys came in from all over the world to humanitarian agencies, and while most could make a difference to the lives of the displaced families, some missed the mark in troubling ways.

As Patricia O'Keefe, a lecturer in Accounting at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, recalls, donations included items such as ski jackets and Viagra, which should have been flagged by the aid workers as inappropriate for people who had just lost their homes, livelihoods, and perhaps even their loved ones.

There were also claims at the time of misuse of monetary donations by several agencies, which were highlighted by the press in the weeks and months that followed the disaster.

Ms O’Keefe was part of a team that investigated how Australian charities managed their public perception in response to this controversy – a practice known as impression management.

She analysed the annual reports of 19 Australian-registered aid agencies from before and after the tsunami, and found that the use of impression management – rather than actual accountability – increased after the bad press surrounding the relief effort.

“We looked at accountability for the money that was donated,” she explains. 

Being accountable means showing in some detail where the money went. Many of the agencies were not doing that.

For example, while some of the annual reports following the disaster were 250 pages long, Ms O’Keefe found others that were just two pages in total, which made it difficult for donors to see exactly how their money was being spent.

She also found that when it came to impression management, some of the larger agencies used ingratiation to appear more attractive to the public, while some of the smaller charities promoted their recent achievements instead of focussing on the disaster.

“Some avoided the tsunami topic altogether, and just didn’t mention it, which in itself is an impression management tactic,” she said.

Ms O’Keefe’s study, which she began 10 years ago with her colleague from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, Ms Sue Conway, was one of the first in Australia to analyse the use of impression management by non-government agencies. 

We’d found a gap in the knowledge that hadn’t been explored by anyone yet.

“We wanted to research impression management, but a lot of academic studies had already looked at the practice in the corporate world. So we wanted to know, how does it translate to charities?”

Now an accounting and taxation law lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Ms O’Keefe is completing a doctorate degree looking at how corporations report ‘alternative profit figures’, which can sometimes mislead their shareholders and potential investors. 

In the 14 years since the tsunami, there have been significant changes in accounting standards for charities. Ms O’Keefe is now keen to examine more recent annual reports to see if the changes have made an impact.

“It would be interesting after that length of time to look at the annual reports of the agencies,” she said.

Has it made them be more accountable? That’s something worth exploring.

Find out about studying Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania here.