A number of charities have been accused of exaggeration to yield more support for campaigns, but is this a wilful misrepresentation or the result of simplifying detail for public consumption, asks Mathew Little.
Do charities exaggerate the world's problems in order to raise funds?
That was the implication of a paper published last week by a group of Oxford University scientists on the media's reporting of global warming.
They argued that NGOs such as WWF-UK and Friends of the Earth were guilty of "widespread misrepresentation of the facts" in giving their backing to sensationalist newspaper reports that 1 million species could be wiped out in the next 50 years because of climate change (Third Sector, 28 April).
WWF was chastised for launching a fundraising appeal on the back of the "shock news".
Paul Jepson, co-author of the Oxford University paper, sees evidence of a growing malaise in the sector's fundraising ethic.
"We may be going down the American NGO route of direct mail campaigns that commodify crises to raise funds," he argues.
"What has happened since the 1980s is the rise of the mega-NGO. Small organisations have grown to become transnational in scope and they've adopted corporate styles of performance management," Jepson says. "They have fundraising targets and professional fundraisers doing the job, which can be separate from the professional norms or core assets of NGOs."
Jepson, a former programme manager for Birdlife International, says much of the sector is still stuck in the "1980s model" of fundraising: "You send out a nice emotive letter and you get £10 guilt money. But then you get involved in an arms race and are forced to hype and hype the story," he says.
"Ultimately, this could damage the message of charities and end up with people not believing anything you say. The current state of fundraising is not good. We need a different model."
The climate-change controversy is not the first time that UK charities have been rebuked for crying wolf. In January, an independent evaluation of the Disasters Emergency Committee 2002 Southern African appeal criticised some of the 12 aid agencies involved for dramatising the scale of the food crisis.
The British Red Cross and Tearfund were censored for using the word "famine" when they "knew that there were no starving millions". Save the Children and Concern were guilty of making completely unwarranted comparisons with the Ethiopian famine of 1984.
So is there something intrinsically dishonest in the way that charities fundraise? Alex Jacobs, director of development charity Mango, co-wrote the DEC evaluation.
"Charities have an enormous responsibility not to exaggerate yet, at times, they have fallen into this trap," he says.
"With the DEC Southern African appeal, charities made claims that couldn't be supported. For example it stated 14 million people were on the verge of famine and explicitly compared the situation with the Ethiopian famine. That was really wrong. It was impossible that it could be anything like Ethiopia."
Jacobs adds that aid agencies regularly make claims that can't be substantiated.
One example he cites is Christian charity World Vision, which claims to be able to eradicate world poverty. "NGOs don't have the resources to, and they don't know how to," he says.
But Jacobs does not see a malign intent in charities' occasional lapses into hyperbole and exaggeration. "All charities face a real dilemma in trying to simplify complex issues for their donors. It is not necessarily that charities are acting in bad faith, but there can be a lack of nuance. There is a tension here, and there is no simple solution," he says.
As WWF-UK points out over the "1 million species face extinction" debate, fundraisers are not scientists, nor should they be. They have to simplify issues otherwise potential donors would not bother to read to the end of the page. To expect them to include the same scrupulous levels of detail as academics is unfair.
David Nussbaum, the former Oxfam finance director, and now chief executive of anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, says that charities grapple with two tensions in their fundraising.
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"Firstly, if you are going to say something, you must say it in a relatively understandable, straightforward and appealing way. But the situations we are talking about are very complex.
"Then there is the question of timing. You want to wait until the picture is very clear and that what you are going to say can be predicted with certainty. But if you wait, it can be too late to do anything about it. In hindsight, what you say may be slightly wide of the mark."
On climate change, Nussbaum argues that if the situation is as bad as the worst-case scenarios, NGOs can't wait 50 years to do something about it.
But in future, if charities do tip over into exaggeration and embellishment, they may face a harsher sanction than a rebuke in the press. The next report from the Buse Commission on the self-regulation of fundraising, due in June, will give details of the new Charitable Fundraising Standards Board, which will subject the contentious claims of charities to peer review - a kind of sector equivalent to the Advertising Standards Authority.
"Fundraising by charities has to be honest and not exaggerate to funders," says Buse. "Overstating does the sector no good."
If charities are found to transgress, possible penalties include exclusion from a kite-mark scheme, the implementation of internal reforms, or a fine.
But Nussbaum does not think the alleged "sexing up" by charities is at the stage that it needs a regulator to sort it out.
"I would need to be personally convinced that we are at a point where things are sufficiently bad sufficiently often that we need an institutionalised mechanism to deal with it. But charities need to know there is pressure on them to monitor what they say," he says.