Online comment: Never has the sector been so disconnected from the front line, says Wally Harbert

The fundraising crisis and the Paris attacks showed up its deficiencies, according to our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

It has been a bad year for the sector. The fundraising scandal cast a dark shadow over public perceptions of its work and opinion polls show that trust in the sector has fallen.

There is no reason for all of us to wear sackcloth and ashes. Few organisations were directly involved in the scandal and the predicted fall in donations is likely to apply to only a few, albeit large, organisations. But unethical behaviour by a handful at the highest level has tarnished the image of all.

To their credit, sector leaders quickly acknowledged their guilt. It was as though the impact of their behaviour only dawned on them when they understood that the scale of their wrong-doing was replicated by others and that individual donors were being bombarded mercilessly.

We are told that Olive Cook received 460 requests for donations in the last year of her life and that her personal data was sold 43 times. Heads have not rolled, which confirms the widely held belief that trustees were implicated in the scandal. The public can be forgiven for querying whether the sector has values that deserve support and it has now become easier for the government to impose greater central control.

The sector should have resisted the investigation into fundraising. The problem goes much wider and deeper. Soon, the proposals that emerged from the Etherington review will have to be revisited to consolidate them into a law embracing businesses. Aggressive capitalism can also harm society’s weakest.

The fundraising scandal exposed another serious problem. As they were busy responding to a crisis of their own making and demanding unfettered power to spend charitable funds on lobbying, sector leaders did not notice that, in Paris, an event occurred that was of great significance to the sector - terrorists killed more than 130 innocent people.

I have searched the media in vain for comment on behalf of the third sector about the attack. This was a huge missed opportunity. There would be eager listeners to pundits offering a view on how to build safer communities or suggesting inclusive mechanisms at neighbourhood level to respond to possible widespread disruption to civil life. Promoting inclusive communities is something the sector does well. It also attracts donations.

Terrorism is not a war with discernable battle lines and easily distinguished combatants. The front line is outside everyone’s front door. And, however unwilling, we are the combatants. The response cannot be left to the police and the military and the sector cannot choose whether or not to be engaged. To employ a sadly misused phrase, "we are all in this together".

A sector that was relevant would already have organised a summit, drawing on the expertise of its members to explore how, a partnership between the government and the sector can build safer, more cohesive communities. It would now be consulting trustees, staff and volunteers about its role in civil emergencies.

I have never known a time when sector leaders were so disconnected from the front line or from social realities – and I have been involved with running voluntary organisations since the 1940s. Those at the top must focus on real social needs, not the perceived needs of the sector. They must demonstrate that they can be trusted. They have a long road to travel.

Wally Harbert is a retired director of social services and charity worker




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