Interview: Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society

A brush with The Sun convinced Hughes that keeping your head down in the face of media criticism isn't good enough, writes Susannah Birkwood

Jeremy Hughes
Jeremy Hughes

It's an email every charity dreads receiving from a tabloid journalist: "The story about you will be published tomorrow."

In the case of the Alzheimer's Society, the email came in July after two weeks of conversations between the charity's press office and a Sun journalist, focusing on the fact that 50p in every pound donated to the charity was spent on staff wages and pensions in 2014.

The media officer who was sent this forewarning did not read it until the following day, by which time an article headlined "Alzheimer's £42m blown on staff" had already appeared on page 13 of the newspaper. But Jeremy Hughes, the charity's chief executive of the past five years, reacted quickly, taking time out of internal meetings so he could give full attention to mounting a defence.

The charity did not proactively contact the media to try to set the record straight, but it did respond promptly to the media requests that came in: Hughes gave a phone interview to Third Sector at an hour's notice, which meant a full rebuttal of The Sun article was on the Third Sector website by lunchtime. And he responded to a request from the The Guardian website's Voluntary Sector Network with a blog - ghost-written by press office colleagues - that called on the sector to tackle the "common myths" in media and public understanding about how charities are run. The blog was shared 3,000 times on social media, and one sector participant tweeted that it was a "great rallying cry".

The Sun's coverage - at the height of what many view as the most persistent and vociferous spate of media criticism the sector has ever seen - was a consequence of the public's misunderstanding of charities, according to Hughes. "There's still a totally uninformed view that charities are run by volunteers, who can do everything, and that you don't need staff," he says. "I found it extraordinary that The Sun made out it was wrong that we spent our money on staff."

During his 25 years in the voluntary sector, Hughes has witnessed numerous episodes of media criticism of charities, including an article published 20 years ago that expressed outrage about a chandelier in the offices the NSPCC was renting at the time. This means he doesn't believes the latest slew of coverage is anything exceptional - but he does feel something can be done about it, starting with educating journalists about how the sector works.

The sector's umbrella bodies have failed to do this, he says: "The National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Institute of Fundraising have a responsibility to speak more loudly. It's interesting how little coverage there was of anything they were saying in the Daily Mail pieces we've seen this summer.

"OK, the Daily Mail probably didn't want to give space to anything other than the story it wanted, but we need to be louder, we need to build relationships more strongly with journalists, with editors, with politicians, to help them understand what it is that charities do today."

He also finds it strange that charities themselves have shown reluctance to justify the sector's practices in the face of media criticism. "I've talked to fellow chief executives who, in the week the Daily Mail did its barrage on fundraising, rushed to get their copies of the newspaper every morning to see if they were in it, then breathed a big sigh of relief when they weren't, rather than thinking that this affects all of us in the sector. There's a little bit of keeping your heads down, keeping out of the limelight, hoping it will all go away."

Someone to speak out

Hughes says it would help if a charity that had not been attacked by the media were to speak out and defend charities that had. "You want someone speaking up who isn't in it and saying this is an important issue, we're being misrepresented, we're pandering to the lowest common denominator and we're leaving out to dry those few charities that get picked on by the media," he says. Is this what his charity did? He concedes that it did not. "The article in The Sun was the prompt," he says.

Hughes saw that The Sun's story was written by its showbusiness correspondent, which he says might be why it was so full of misconceptions. He thinks media organisations should be encouraged to employ specialist charity correspondents.

He says the charity sector could learn from the science and technology sector, which brought about a marked improvement in the way the media reported on its research by establishing the Science Media Centre in 2002. The centre, which promotes better understanding among journalists of science and engineering, has led to more accurate reporting and more feature stories, he says.

Hughes is one of those rare chief executives in the sector with a background in fundraising, having previously served as director of marketing and income generation at the British Red Cross and as chief executive of the telephone fundraising agency Pell & Bales. He says the recent media criticism of fundraising practices has caused him concern.

In July, the Alzheimer's Society suspended its telephone fundraising because it wanted to be seen to be doing something to address public alarm. After talking to its agency partners, it found that many of them had been complying with its policy of giving all their staff dementia awareness training, but not always to the charity's standards. It is now addressing this failing, Hughes says.

Asked if the charity will discourage telephone fundraisers from asking for money three times - a practice that has drawn particular criticism - he says: "We're looking at a lighter ask. We increasingly feel that the telephone call is about engagement rather than the pressure ask." He is also keen to ensure that the vulnerable are not bothered by unwanted phone calls, and says he told Sir Stuart Etherington's review of the self-regulation of fundraising this summer that this could be done with a "vulnerable people's register". Fundraisers would be prohibited from contacting anyone on the list.

'New fundraising methods'

Hughes believes that charities, as well as tightening up existing practices, should be creating new fundraising methods that are more in line with public expectations. It would have cost too much for the Alzheimer's Society to bring its fundraising in-house, he says, but it has just appointed a director of digital transformation who is responding to the public's dislike of call centres with a pilot programme in which volunteers make fundraising calls from home.

"I'll probably get into trouble with my fundraising colleagues for this, but sometimes we're not very creative in fundraising," he says. "Over the past 25 years, fundraising practice hasn't advanced nearly as much as I would have expected. The formula is pretty much the same: we send direct mail or do telephone versions of it, with the same rather pedestrian approach - you underline the important sentences, you do bits in bold and you ask people for donations."

He acknowledges that mass-participation events have become a popular way of raising money, predominantly from the under-30s, but says the sector is currently neglecting those aged between 30 and 60. "There must be a new paradigm for fundraising that we could develop," he says. What would this entail? "There's something really strong about making it more local. Despite the decline in religious belief, the church is probably still one of the biggest fundraisers - that's because people engage with their local churches, give to the collection and feel a sense of identity. We've lost some of that localism that enables people to feel part of something in their community."

Critics of the charity might raise an eyebrow at this, because when Hughes became chief executive in 2010, the Alzheimer's Society had just undergone a restructure that merged 240 local branches into 49 regional centres. This upset some local volunteers, who left the charity, accusing it of becoming too bureaucratic and centralised.

Hughes says the change was aimed at giving the trustees more financial oversight, improving service standards and widening access to services. He says he thinks it was inevitable that some long-serving volunteers would fall by the wayside. "We had to go through the process of closing things down in order to create something new," he says. "I think we've modernised to support people in the best possible way. We now have volunteers involved locally, volunteer engagement networks and plenty of local representatives. So we've put in a version of what was there before, without the downsides."

Since the restructure, the charity's membership has fallen by 29 per cent to fewer than 16,000, despite the target set in 2009/10 to increase membership to 100,000 within five years. Hughes says the decline occurred because the charity placed less emphasis on member recruitment, focusing instead on the needs of existing members and other priorities.

More positive picture

Judged against other criteria, the picture is more positive. The charity won the Most Admired Charity award at this year's Third Sector Awards in September, partly because of its massive growth in income and public engagement in recent years. Income has grown by 54 per cent to £91m during Hughes's tenure, and in February the charity successfully hit its target, set three years ago, of recruiting a million people as Dementia Friends - people who volunteer to be trained to spot the signs of dementia and support those in need.

The profile of dementia among the media, the public and politicians continues to rise. The government increased its already robust support of the charity in February, when it announced the "Prime Minister's Challenge on Dementia 2020". Hughes accepts that the significant funding the charity receives from the government - contracts represented 37 per cent of its income last year - and the vulnerability of many of its beneficiaries could make the Alzheimer's Society a prime target for the next Daily Mail investigation.

He is confident the charity would prevail if this happened, however: "If anyone came to investigate what we were doing, they could probably find things we could do better. But I don't think there's anything that damns us as being in a very bad space. With the work we've done with our agencies over the past three months, I'm very confident not only that we protect vulnerable people but also that we protect the right of people to give and our need to generate income. We're probably a good performer."

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