In defence of charities (again)

There was another round of charity bashing this weekend with the publication of a report by the True and Fair Foundation into how charities manage their finances. The point of the piece was that, in the view of the report’s authors, charities are directing a lower proportion of their total expenditure towards the mission or the service delivery of their organisation than they ought to be.

 

Despite concerted attempts by NCVO and others to highlight that the report contained inaccuracies and that the conclusions drawn from the data were misleading, the Foundation went ahead and published the report. This was then gleefully seized upon by The Telegraph, The Mail and The Sun as further evidence that, despite what you may have learned through your own experience, far from being a force for good in our fractured society, charities (big ones especially) are A BAD THING.

 

As fundraisers we spend a lot of time considering people’s motivations because we know that if we can understand why people give, with the right kind of acknowledgement, support and stewardship, we can encourage them to support again and to support in different ways too.

 

An examination of the motives of the newspapers leads to an alarming conclusion: the editors strongly believe that their readers are interested in the BAD CHARITIES narrative they are peddling and so, on slow news days, this is one of the stories they reach for. Whipping up outrage about the scale and professionalism of the voluntary sector is now a reliable filler and is considered strong enough to be a front page lead.

 

The motives of the anti-charity brigade at Westminster probably work along broadly similar lines: the working thesis is that there is concern in their constituencies about the behaviour of charities and there is an opportunity to align a personal prejudice against aspects of the modern charity world from a potentially vote-winning, charity-bashing platform.

 

The current Chair of the Charity Commission appears to be launching a sustained attack from within – and much of this is to do with his desire to distance the Commission as a regulator (policeman) of the sector, rather than the supportive guide role it has played for many years.

 

The motives of Gina Miller of the Fair and True Foundation, in launching her broadsides against charities are probably harder to guess, (there was an attack on careerist fundraisers a few years ago, so this is not a one-off). A charitable view would be that she believes in what she is saying and doing in ‘calling charities to account’, although her refusal to engage on the facts of the case despite a genuine attempt from NCVO to facilitate a discussion would lead to the conclusion that she has decided on an agenda and is determined to make the facts fit the argument. This feels more about Ms Miller’s personal profile than anything else to me, though I’m sure it’s more complicated than that…

 

What I do know is that this is doing charities no good at all. There is some evidence that the negative reporting is starting to have some impact on trust and confidence levels generally, though this is perhaps not as significant as may have been expected given the annus horibilis we have endured. I certainly agree with NCVO that the timing of The Telegraph story (followed by the other papers) is very unhelpful during peak Christmas Appeal season for most charities.

 

But I am pleased to see the response from sector bodies, organisations, journalists covering the voluntary sector and charity staff (fundraisers chief among them), to this latest – largely unfounded – attack on our good name.

 

I’ve heard of fundraisers engaging with charity supporters on social media to put the side of the story and to debunk some of the misleading reporting. I think we all need to stand up for our sector and have those conversations; down the pub, at dinner parties, on facebook and twitter and wherever they arise. There is a small but vocal minority who have shown themselves to be unusually interested in finding negative stories about charity (and making them up if they can’t find them). We need to mobilise our sector bodies and our PR teams to rebut the nonsense and defend our working practices and our good names whilst dealing robustly with legitimate criticism too. And we should do this for the sake of our staff teams (and fundraising teams especially) and – most importantly – we should do this on behalf of those we exist to help. We have a role as individuals to help our friends and families to understand the crucial and increasingly multi-faceted charities play in today’s society. If we don’t defend ourselves then who will?

 

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Can we all put down the Twitter pitchforks?

Social media has given us the ability to send and receive information instantly at a huge scale and at all times of the day and night. I know Twitter in particular, makes me a better fundraiser because it connects me to examples of best practice, innovation, sector news and the support of my fellow fundraisers / charity workers.

But there’s a downside to a medium which has such immediacy, and which seems to encourage an atmosphere in which snap judgments are the norm and expressing a speedy opinion, is fairly standard.

I was particularly sad about the way in which the debate around data protection and privacy concerns in relation to the Samaritans Radar Twitter app played out on Twitter. For those who are unaware of this story, the app was designed to enable users to monitor the accounts of their friends for distressing messages.  It would then be possible for people to contact friends and offer support or check they were ok.

Today, Samaritans confirmed that they were closing down the app permanently, having initially suspended it following the concerns raised at launch. Now I don’t claim that those raising issues in this regard didn’t have a valid point to make, nor do I feel that people should not be able to express reasonably held views. But I do have an issue with the mob mentality which I discerned in some of the commentary on Twitter. It felt as though some people had sensed an opportunity to point out a problem and grabbed it with both hands.

I would like to have seen more awareness of the importance of reaching out to people – often young people who use social media to express their innermost feelings – in times of acute emotional distress. I would like to have seen a greater acknowledgement of the intent behind the programme and perhaps even some weighing of the issues between the right to data privacy and the potential to save a life.  I think the need for new ways of offering support for people online (especially young people) is ever more pressing now that Beat Bullying has ceased operations.

It’s not an isolated incident either. Salvation Army South Africa’s quick response to #TheDress meme garnered mainly plaudits, but also some criticism from those who felt that the way that the advert and artwork was designed, with some people feeling that it unintentionally reinforced patriarchal views of women. Again, the criticism was well-argued and was a perfectly valid view, but was the core purpose of the advert to raise awareness of domestic violence not a more important message?

Clearly charities need to take care in the social media arena, and the fact that they are doing good work should not give them a ‘get out of jail free’ card when they make errors of judgment, but I think the stronger attacks could sometimes be toned down a little.

Do you agree or am I being over-sensitive on behalf of charities?

 

 

 

 

 

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First time for everything!

 

 

10 things I always wanted to know about the IFC but never quite got around to finding out!  Perspectives of a first time delegate…

 

have never attended the International Fundraising Congress in Holland before, partly because of the relatively high cost, but also because it always falls on my birthday! This year I resolved to go anyway and here’s what I learnt along with some tips for anyone attending for the first time next year.

 

Practical stuff:

 

1) “Because you’re worth it” (and so is the conference); IFC is an investment in you and in your organisation’s fundraising capacity. If you’re offered the chance to go, take it. If you’re not offered the chance, build a case.

 

2) Once you are there, work hard to get the most from it; opt to attend a masterclass – you’ll be learning from the best and you’ll make great contacts in an intensive 6 hour session over two days. Be prepared for late nights and early starts – hands off that snooze button!

 

3) Go on your own, or make sure you don’t just spend time with colleagues if you do go in a work group; October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month which is like Christmas (only more so!) in my organisation, so it’s difficult for us to have many fundraisers attend. It’s entirely natural to spend time in social settings with people you know well, but attending alone ensured that I spoke to people I didn’t know so well and met new people – push yourself to do the same – at least some of the time – if you are there with colleagues.

 

4) Make useful contacts and follow them up; I have been invited to do some skill-sharing in Austria (with a former colleague) and in Croatia (by a delegate who I met last week). If this does happen – and I’d like to do it – it will be good for me and good for my charity as developing a session about some of what we do will encourage some useful additional review which can be shared internally and can inform future planning.

 

5) Do the sessions in areas you don’t know so much about as well as seeking the practical tips in your own area of expertise. (There were some excellent sessions on communicating more effectively too). I found it more stimulating to do this and it gives greater understanding of colleague’s challenges and issues to know more about these

 

6) Take some running / swimming gear or go for a walk – the hotel is in the most Dutch-looking countryside possible surrounded by beautiful flower fields, polders and windmills! Plan your breaks or you can spend 4 days inside before you know it….

 

Overall programme quality:

 

7) It was interesting to hear the views of veteran attendees, some of whom felt that IFC2012 ticked the inspiration box but was perhaps not the finest year in terms of content. I heard of some sessions where the quality wasn’t fabulous but there was evidence of a high level of preparation, thought and planning in the sessions I attended, all of which offered useful insights. I do believe that there is real value in affirmation; much of what makes good fundraising is sound common sense done well and filtered by experience, so don’t be surprised if you know a lot of what is shared. Reinforcement of sound principles is probably more important than we sometimes recognise.

 

8) You will be inspired! Jeremy Gilley (http://peaceoneday.org/) and Eric van Veenendaal (http://inspire2live.org/) brought the passion in spades at the plenary sessions, but so did many of the people I spoke to in and out of sessions. You can’t help but feel that your batteries are re-charging as you draw energy from others.

 

Two things for me to reflect on specifically;

 

9) I was very interested to hear IKEA Foundation’s CEO, Per Heggenes, describe how his organisation responded to UNHCR’s need for tents by asking; “what if tents aren’t the best temporary shelter for your needs?” This had real echoes of Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If I’d asked them what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” I’m not surewhether any aid agency had asked this question previously so I’m thinking about what are the things (beyond money) that only corporates can effectively bring to the table…

 

10) The value of emotion in fundraising is worth the energy we expend on defending our right to communicate effectively with donors. We need to get on the front foot with colleagues in debates about ethics and we need to pay real attention to our communications style, working hard to bring people with us so that we can produce exquisite fundraising in support of our missions.

 

I bought lots of chocolate at the airport to say thanks to the fundraisers in my office for their hard work during Breast Cancer Awareness Month – I think I have brought other, (even more valuable!) things back with me too.

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