Matthew Sherrington: Panorama, scrutiny and charity ethics

Instead of protesting about media coverage, we should focus on the ethical and reputational questions it raises, writes our online columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

We can argue the toss over the quality of last week's BBC Panorama programme about Comic Relief. We can argue about whether or not it was responsible journalism, given fears of the damage it could do to the charity sector and fundraising. And plenty of the charity twitterati did just that. But the media is not there to judge 'public good' - it is there to pursue stories in the 'public interest'. And let’s face it, a charity making waves for the wrong reasons will be of public interest, because charities are nothing without public trust. Shooting the messenger does not dispose of uncomfortable truths. 

Charities are not above scrutiny, not least when they preach transparency and accountability. Like celebrities, charities court the media to promote themselves and their work and so – as with celebrities – it’s a bit rich for charities to complain when the coverage isn’t so glowing. "Doing greater good" is not a good enough defence when things go pear-shaped or when activities raise eyebrows.

What might be logical, well-managed and cost-effective and seem appropriate to a charity might jar badly in the eyes and mind of the public – face-to-face fundraising being an obvious example. People don’t generally like the idea of charities as professional mega-businesses. If they think of charities at all, they would rather imagine them being run by a bunch of voluntary amateurs. It is this dissonance that sits uncomfortably with people, so in-your-face reminders don’t help.

There is a danger of charities living in their own equivalent of the Westminster bubble – distant from ordinary people, detached from their concerns and unaware of how they are perceived. Non-charity viewers of Panorama tweeted about completely different preoccupations: how outrageous big salaries are in big charities; how much money they waste; how little difference they make anyway. Who are charities to make high-and-mighty moral judgements about companies (or me)? Money is money and does good, doesn’t it? (Some fundraisers kicked in on that too).

Charities are values-driven. That puts the sector on a pedestal of our own making. We have to live up to our values. (Some of the Twitter comments pointing to the BBC’s two-faced pension investments in tobacco and arms missed this point). But it is complicated. Values and ethics are subjective – there’s no absolute right or wrong. They are based on what you believe to be right. Not everyone will share them or agree. As in politics, there’s little point in arguing with someone who doesn’t share your perspective. And sometimes values can even compete. How do you weigh up pros and cons and decide? Integrity is rooted in being clear where you’re coming from and how that guides you in making difficult choices.

Corporate partnerships are often where values, money and the question of independence come crashing together. Can you take the shilling without compromising your integrity, independence and campaigning voice? You might think so and be confident of that, as Save the Children was, but is that how it will be seen? Does a balance of positive over negative always win out, or are some negatives just too great? Greenpeace has a zero-policy on corporate money, not because of any ethical judgement about all business being bad, but because it makes its campaigning life simpler. It is quite happy to collaborate with business when it makes a difference, and has had what some might consider surprising partners, including Coca-Cola and N-Power.

So if ethics are subjective, where to start? There’s no better place than first principles – your charity’s mission and values. What action compromises them, and what action might seem in direct opposition to them? Investing in tobacco for health charities or in arms for international development charities? Definitely not a good idea. But what if tobacco or arms don’t impact on your mission? What reason would there be to turn away the money, if the money would do good for your cause? (We’re talking about your organisation’s values here, not your own). Years ago, corporate bête noir Nestlé offered some big corporate giving in an attempt to scrub up. Oxfam wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole, given Nestlé’s history of scandalous marketing of baby milk powder to mothers without access to clean water, and with coffee one of the greatest rip-offs of poor farmers (spot the value judgements in that sentence). Shelter accepted its money – a strong brand fit given Nescafé’s cosy-home and warming-cuppa advertising. And why not?

For Amnesty International, an organisation all about justice, the surface issue Panorama picked on might have been massive (and unnecessary) payments to exiting directors. A moment’s reflection on the justice of it should have told the charity that it was wrong. It had already accepted this in an internal review and it has been a salutary lesson for them, judging by the humility of its statements. Save the Children made judgements about from whom to take money, with whom to work and on what to campaign, and defended those judgements; you might or might not agree. Comic Relief had a logic behind its investment approach to maximise returns, but was naive, handled the media badly (or to be more precise, not at all), and has said it will be reviewing its investment policies. I wish it well – it is a vital organisation doing great work in the world, and media stories about cock-ups shouldn’t detract from that. But they do, if just a little bit.

So remember your brand reputation is not based on what you do. It is based on what people think about what you do. You forget that at your peril. 

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant in fundraising and strategic communications. Follow him on Twitter

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