Matthew Sherrington: Does William Shawcross want us to be seen and not heard?

The sector must speak up for fundraising, says our online columnist - and that includes face-to-face

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

'Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man.  ... 'What!' said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver Twist. ‘I want some more.’

'For MORE!' said Mr. Limbkins. 'Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?'

'He did, sir,' replied Bumble.

'That boy will be hung,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

Charles Dickens

The new chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, has been getting to grips with his brief the last couple of weeks. But as "one of life's softly-spoken charmers", as the Daily Mail described him, what’s in store based on what he’s had to say so far?

Here he is speaking to Acevo: "Some charities have become dependent on the state. And I think that most members of the public, when asked, would say a charity is an organisation funded from private donations, not public funds." 

Well, I have considerable sympathy for that view, as I’ve written for Third Sector before. There’s a bit of an identity challenge when a voluntary organisation gets more than 90 per cent of its income from government to deliver contracted services.

Mr. Shawcross went on: "Charities should not become the junior partner in the welfare state. Whether or not they provide services funded by government or indeed receive grants from government, they must remain independent and focused on their mission."

Laudable sentiments, again, echoing those I wrote here.

So, in a week when a survey of charity chief executives raises the prospect of one in six charities going under, after a recent (if controversial) report from the Charities Aid Foundation and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations predicted a 20 per cent drop in public giving, what should we make of his statement to the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee that "face-to-face fundraising is a blight on the sector"?

This about a fundraising technique that recruits hundreds of thousands of donors to charities each year, reaches younger donors, and on which many charities big and small are dependent for their public fundraising. In a tough environment, it might not be laying golden eggs, but for many it’s the last goose standing and feathered.

Mr. Shawcross went on: "Trustees should make sure they collect funds in a way that does not offend people."

Dangerous words, if he wants to nurture as well as regulate the sector. Face-to-face is simply the most obvious of fundraising techniques, and the sector knows it has to manage it carefully. I don’t think there’s any complacency about that. But we shouldn’t offend people? That’s every sort of fundraising to someone – too much junk mail or telemarketing, or too many upsetting images on TV. You only need to think of NSPCC's recent trauma to know the folly of letting trustees stop fundraising activity they don’t personally like. What's left? Tin rattling? How old-fashioned. No surprise that the fundraising techniques deemed acceptable are the least effective.

What is he thinking? Charities shouldn’t be dependent on government; the government wants to offload services to 'big society' charities but not pay for them; people expect charities to be funded by private donations, but god forbid they should actually ask for money. 

If there was no need for money. If money grew on trees. If people were as generous as they think they are. If people still tithed. If people got up in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and with a big stretch, yawned "I feel like giving to charity – whom shall I choose today?"

Being asked can feel uncomfortable. You're put on the spot, forced to make a decision, don't want to say no. But when it's done, giving feels so good. We all know from Christmas that this is true: better to give than receive.

Asking can feel awkward too, which is why too many trustees and chief executives won’t do it. And why they have fundraisers who can. Asking is necessary and, if done well, it gives someone the opportunity to feel great about making a difference.

We already have a government with Victorian, patrician views of only helping "the deserving poor". Lord Hodgson in his Charities Act 2006 review suggested charities receiving 50 per cent of their income from government shouldn’t campaign. Is the new chair of the Charity Commission going to charm us all into being seen and not heard? Or will the sector speak up for fundraising and argue the toss?

Matthew Sherrington, Strategy Director, The Good Agency

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