Save Our Sector; let’s stand up to the media and get our house in order

There's no doubt the last few weeks have been a torrid time for the charity sector. Joe Saxton explores how it happened, why it happened and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

There's no doubt the last few weeks have been a torrid time for the charity sector. Joe Saxton explores how it happened, why it happened and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

It has been a bewildering few weeks for charities, their CEOs and their fundraisers. We have seen vicious and personal stories in the Daily Mail, an attack on Alzheimer’s Society in the Sun, and another media story predicted soon. Government is opportunistically wading in to propose legislation to rein in something or other. Olive Cooke’s death started all this as the newspapers decided that fundraisers drove her to commit suicide.

Several things have stood out for me in the topsy turvy world we are now in. First of all, NCVO have jumped into the fundraising fray. Before Olive Cooke, they were usually about as interested in fundraising as vegetarians are in a nice bit of meat. Their recent strategy didn’t mention fundraising or self-regulation, nor did their election manifesto. So when Stuart Etherington talked about self-regulation in mid-June, they could clearly spot a bandwagon to jump on. However NCVO’s interest is a good thing. Up until now, fundraising’s self-regulation has been left to fundraisers and its far too important for that. We need the sustained interest in fundraising from all parts of the sector and for nobody to be put off by the unhelpful stance of some to non-fundraisers' involvement.

The second area is how the Institute of Fundraising has turned on a sixpence. For years it has said that its Code of Practice is just fine and self-regulation works well. Now they say a few ‘lay’ people on their standards committee and an independent chair would be good. In the last week, it has welcomed legislation to protect vulnerable donors – yet they have their own Code of Practice which should do just that. Is it just me who is confused by this?

After one Daily Mail headline and a few investigative exposés, defending self-regulation and how the sector works seems to have stopped. I always thought that being driven by tabloid headlines was the government’s job, but it seems the sector wants to get in on the act. You will need to search pretty hard for the sector leaders who will say we need better self-regulation not new legislation.

Let me be clear on my position. We don’t need new laws, and certainly not any that make charities do pointless complaint reporting in their annual reports. We need better self-regulation. The evidence that the public are unhappy with many aspects of 21st century fundraising has been clear for several years, as have the flaws in self-regulation. Two years ago, I wrote an article in Third Sector pointing out that the IoF’s standards committee had no independent voice or viewpoints, let alone any donors. I have long said that the IoF should not control the Code of Practice.

As an aside, I can’t but smile at the irony of a newspaper industry that has fought tooth and nail against statutory regulation, and for self-regulation, saying that the charity sector needs better laws to govern it.

So what should the sector do to get out of the hole it is in?

Stand up to the media attacks. The strategy up until now seems to have been ‘capitulate to newspaper demands and get the story off the front page’. This isn’t working. We need to stand up for the sector, self-regulation and the difference we make. Until we stand up for ourselves, and prove we can defend what we do, the bad stories will keep coming.

Co-ordinate better.  Our response to the media onslaught has been chaotic. It’s not clear what our line is, who the spokespeople are and what the key messages are. Some have suggested that the Understanding Charities Group could perform this role, others have suggested CAF or NCVO. I am not really fussed as long as whoever does the job has the resources, the energy, the courage to be ballsy and is plugged into charities.

Minimise fundraising aggravation. The Olive Cooke story ran and ran, not because it was true, but because people believed from their own experiences that it could be. They empathised with feeling hounded by fundraising. We need to minimise the aggravation. It is extraordinary how long it took the Institute of Fundraising to agree that a ‘no cold calling’ sticker on a doorstep meant charities too. There should be a label pin which means that street fundraisers won’t ask them to give - a wearable version of the Telephone Preference Service. I also think that every donor should be asked annually by the charities they support how often they want to be contacted and what they would or wouldn’t like to hear about.

Diversify fundraising. Part of the reason the fundraising community has run into the problems it has is because it’s like one vast factory fishing fleet, trawling the oceans for ever-diminishing numbers of donors. In an age of austerity, as income from government goes down, charities need to raise more. Fundraising is under pressure. But like the fishing fleets, we now go after the young and the old (and the vulnerable, if the Mail is to be believed). To get out of this rut we need to innovate and diversify fundraising. We need to build new sources of income: lotteries, financial services, online, events and the like.

Make clear how important charities are. From the way that the government and the media treat the sector, it would seem we are worthy but unimportant. We need to make clear again and again the importance of charities as employers, as carers for the vulnerable and the dispossessed, as innovators in medical research, social welfare, health, disability and a million other areas. We may not be too big to fail, but we sure are too important to simply trash and leave in the dirt.

I don’t know what will come next in this torrid period. I do know that until the sector begins to stand up for itself, is proud of we do and how we operate and works hard to make sure our own house is in order, we will be on the defensive. As it stands, the attacks and the trashing of our reputation can only get worse. 

Joe Saxton
We're running a media training day as part of the Understanding Charities Group next month. We want to help charities get better at tackling the difficult issues that the media, donors and even staff often ask. If you're interested, you can download more details here.

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