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Charities should be more confident in their deals with corporates

The story in yesterday’s Guardian, which said the charity Variety Club was receiving less than £4.50 per year from each of the shoe recycling banks emblazoned with its name, will have surprised members of the public – many of whom are already wary about the proportion of their charitable donations that make it to the front line.

Looking into the story a little deeper, the details became slightly blurred: the European Recycling Company, the private firm that runs the collection banks, insisted it was not accurate to use a cash-per-bank figure because the firm agreed a yearly donation with the charity that was not directly linked to its profits or its income from donated stock.

The charity also said it expected to receive £35,000 rather than the reported £30,000 from the company this year. Even so, divided by the 7,000 collection points, it would equate to just a fiver per bank.

But what is really surprising here is not the paltry level of donations, but the Variety Club’s attitude to its partnership with the ERC.

“They are a business, not a charity,” a spokeswoman for the Variety Club told me on the phone. “They don’t have to make any charitable donations at all. I can’t stress enough how much it means to us that they do give us this money.”

“Hang on a minute,” I said to the spokeswoman. “The company is making a profit by using your charity’s name because it makes people more willing to donate stock. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t.”

As I had expected, she held to her line. It may, of course, not represent the charity’s position at all. But after our conversation, I felt worried. How many charities take a subordinate role in corporate partnerships, being satisfied with the money they get even if most members of the public would see it as meagre?

In truth, most businesses wouldn’t bother with charities if it didn’t make them more profitable. If charities had a clear understanding of this, and more confidence in the power of their brands to influence behaviour, they might negotiate more generous arrangements with those companies.