Debra Allcock Tyler: The 'cool club' of corporate giving

Smaller charities will always lose out to larger ones in the battle for corporate sponsorship, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Every year I take a week's holiday to help my siblings and friends care for their children, 10 of whom are under 10.

This year was a little more challenging than usual because of the weather - but kids being kids, they managed to occupy themselves. One rainy afternoon they turned one of the bedrooms into the Cool Club. You had to fill in an "aplcashon" form to get a membership card to join.

Unfortunately, Louis, age three, was unable to gain entry to this exclusive establishment: he can't write so couldn't fill in the form, bless him. He was crying outside the bedroom door because they wouldn't let him in. I overheard a child's voice from within: "What are you crying for? No one's hurt you." To which Louis responded, through sobs: "Yes you 'ave. You've 'urt my beelings."

Clubs that only the privileged few are part of are rife in our sector too. In particular, I mean access to big corporate sponsorship. We all know getting corporate support is hard, and is usually available only to an exclusive few big-brand charities.

So I was unsurprised to hear that M&S was linking up with Oxfam. Big company, big charity ... it's predictable, of course. The radio advertisement I heard said that as part of M&S's charitable giving it was inviting its customers to bring all their old M&S clothes into their local stores, and the retailer would pass them on to Oxfam.

Wow, I thought, what a great idea. When I heard that people who complied would also be given a £5 M&S voucher as a reward, I was deeply impressed. I am usually cynical about corporate giving. At the DSC we have been researching it for years and our experience is that most companies wildly exaggerate the extent of their generosity.

However, I'm sorry to say that my usual cynicism was only reinforced when I heard what the nefarious small print announced in a low, barely audible voice - apparently, you get the fiver only if you spend £35 on M&S products. What looked like an act of altruism on the surface started to look more like a marketing wheeze to drive sales. Sadly typical.

Now there are those of you who will say "why shouldn't M&S benefit financially and at the same time help a charity?" Well, for one thing, it's not our purpose as charities to help big business make money, even if we benefit from their profits.

But more importantly, I bet some of you, like me, find it profoundly depressing that although millions of people in the UK give freely of their time, money and effort simply because it's the right thing to do, for companies it's all too often about cashing in on a charity's brand. If there's nothing in it for them, they don't bother.

You'll be glad to know that Louis was eventually able to gain access to the Cool Club (with a little bit of help from his Aunty Debs filling in the aplcashon form). Small charities - I suspect you'll always be left crying outside the room of big corporate giving.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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