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Fundraising critics keep chugging away… so watch out

It’s been a tough old week for fundraising. First, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme sends a couple of undercover reporters to dish dirt on the internal goings-on at two of the country’s best-known fundraising agencies. Then a disgruntled volunteer fundraiser launches a tirade about “chugging”, as he persistently calls it, claiming that paid street fundraisers are having a negative impact on those who collect money for charity for free.

It hasn’t just been this week, of course. The Sunday Telegraph went undercover at Tag Campaigns in June 2012, and the BBC’s Newsnight did a bit of a hatchet job on Help for Heroes a couple of months later. Add to that the Panorama exposé on where Comic Relief invests its money last December, and it’s clear that it’s been open season on the sector for a couple of years now.

Some of these attempts to blacken the name of fundraising look slightly desperate. This is most evident in the so-called “report” sent out by UK Charities Aid last week. Peter Quinn, chair of this volunteer fundraising group active in north west England, has emailed every MP and council in the country to share valuable stats such as “90 to 97 per cent of the population are against chugging”, which he told me comes from a highly reliable source – namely, “surveys done by media like The Bolton News”.

Quinn also made the laughable claim that street fundraising has “made millionaires out of so many” and urges readers to view this BBC report, produced four years ago, about the fees charged to charities by fundraising agencies. His motive? His outfit, UK Charities Aid, has had a hard time fundraising and believes things would be easier if chuggers were no more. His main gripe is that paying people to do the work means less money goes to the cause.

While Dispatches would no doubt resent being compared to a little-known volunteering group on a self-serving crusade against street fundraising, it embarked on its own crusade on Monday night without a huge amount more gravitas. Yes, it made a couple of disquieting observations about the practices at NTT Fundraising and Pell & Bales – that fundraisers were put under pressure to meet daily targets, for example, and that donors weren’t told the agency staff were being paid until after they’d made a decision to donate – but there was nothing especially hard-hitting about the documentary. While NTT did say it was OK to call back a woman with a terminally ill daughter, who’s to know whether that woman might not want that call in six months time, when leaving a legacy to the charity on behalf of her child might be the most empowering option available to her?

Despite the flimsiness of the criticisms levelled by both these attacks, they do carry a message for the sector. They are a useful reminder that everything charities do must be with the utmost care and circumspection these days. It’s no longer acceptable for charities – and the agencies they hire – to fail to be transparent about the cost of fundraising, regardless of how the guidelines on the subject may or may not be worded.

It’s also no longer OK for them to choose whether or not they want their fundraising methods to be regulated. Great Ormond St Hospital – on whose behalf NTT was fundraising during the Dispatches investigation – stands out among the top 50 fundraising charities for not being a member of the Fundraising Standards Board. Monday’s programme suggests why that isn’t good enough.

  • CitizenRKH

    It’s difficult to know whether to bother responding to this cantankerous rant posing as a blog.

    Having read the terms and conditions of commenting on the Third Sector site, I would regard statements such as, “disgruntled volunteer fundraiser launches a tirade” and “little-known volunteering group on a self-serving crusade” as personal attacks. Being abusive and defamatory, both are against the permitted use for commentators, but seemingly fine for ThirdSector’s own fundraising and comms reporter.

    Away from ethics, though, I think it’s important to counter some of the opinions expressed.

    The fact that there have been four separate reports on different aspects of charities over a period of two years hardly indicates an, ‘open season on the sector’. Some may see it as effective democracy, others as journalists with too much time on their hands. However, complain to a banker or the staff of BP that four attacks in 26 months represents ‘open season’ and they’d laugh at you.

    Secondly, it seems that Ms Birkwood regards ‘volunteer’ as a dirty word. It is virtually spat out throughout the article, and using it as a descriptor for an organisations seems to be a byword, in her world, for ‘bad’.

    In conclusion, while the article sets out to comment, the stream of bitterness give it very little credibility.

  • Debra Allcock Tyler

    Great blog Susannah. It such a pity that people who criticise fundraisers completely fail to remember that there are human beings and causes that could not and would not be helped without them. Are fundraisers all perfect? Um, no. Does what they do matter hugely to society? Um, yes. Does the sector try to get it right? Um, yes. Is the need of the beneficiary more important than the inconvenience or irritation of the public? In my view, yes.

  • Chris

    Can I ask what difference it would have made if GOSH were members of the FRSB? Would the impact of Dispatches have been less? Both NTT and P&B are members of the FRSB, did that help them or GOSH?

    More worrying to me as a fundraiser is that 6 weeks BEFORE the annual report from the FRSB was released, their Chair was gobbing off to Civil Society saying that telephone complaints had increase again in 2013. Turns out they hadn’t increased proportionally from 2012 (based on number of calls made/complaints), but when the FRSB are giving journalists a misleading top-line analysis, why are we surprised when journos then start digging into this area?

    The FRSB seems to think it’s existence is validated by the number of column inches fundraising complaints get in the press, and I for one think they would do better to just concentrate on giving valid statistics, and not misrepresenting the figures – lord knows the journalists won’t analyse them before slinging mud at the sector.

    Ask yourself this, would this investigative journalism have happened if the line given earlier this year had been, ‘the proportion of telephone calls generating complaints decreased in 2013″?

  • Mel Dixon

    I think it right for people to challenge criticism when there seems to be a damaging mindset developing.

    I think it right for the charity sector to be vigilant over bad practice and anything that annoys or jeopardises essential donations to their respective causes.

    What people seem to have forgotten is that the charity sector has obligations and responsibilities that no other sector has to endure. It always has to be answerable for it’s conduct to a far higher degree than business enterprises. This makes it nothing short of a miracle that they are able to function at all.

    I don’t object to staff being paid for charity work as it often results in verbal abuse and criticism from those who would never support anyone without being paid and rather handsomely at that. Why should people devote their lives to helping others for no pay anyway? We don’t expect medics, farmers, teachers, solicitors, firefighters, police or even politicians and bankers to do so, do we?

    The charity sector has to compete with every kind of business going both huge and small to get any attention at all which sadly means it costs money – money that could indeed be better spent on providing services but until the media and advertising agencies offer charities space for free that is likely to remain the reality. Charities are in danger of being squeezed out of getting any media attention if the cost advertising increases much more.

    It strikes me that some people want to have their cake and eat it. They want charities to mop up anything they would rather not deal with but don’t want to give anything to charities to enable them to do so. Hypocrites are never my favourite.