Online comment: In the Us and Them narrative, charities are now Them, says Peter Gilheany

After a year of negative press, the sector should step back and perhaps have a look at how a different community is responding to similar assaults, says our contributor

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

The voluntary sector is having to deal with the latest in a seemingly endless stream of negative media stories, following the report on charity salaries in the Times earlier this week.

Predictably it has inspired much gnashing of teeth and cries of "why us?" - just as the previous scandals and crises have done so. It is a legitimate question to ask - It is not paranoid to think someone is out to get you when someone is really out to get you.

These crises cannot be treated as water off a duck’s back, they are having a material effect on public trust, down almost 20% in the last 18 months according to the latest polling by NfPSynergy.

However, the sector needs to take a step back and perhaps have a look at how a different community is responding to reputational attacks of this kind. 

The charitable sector is in some ways viewed in a similar way to the cycling community – an outsider group that isn’t seen as under the tent of broad social norms – a bit weird and fringy.

I’ve been involved in a number of cycling campaigns over the years and every time I have been taken aback by the sheers levels of vitriol and spite that cyclists seem to inspire in others. Cyclists, of which I am one, and cycling organisations often respond in the same way many charities are doing at the moment – with defensiveness and general bewilderment at how they are viewed.

As an outsider group, cyclists are often portrayed as a single menacing blob, mowing down pedestrians on pavements and speeding through red lights without a care in the world. The vast majority of those cyclists are also car drivers and pedestrians but they are not given the same group think treatment. In the public discourse they are often simply referred to as "cyclists" not "some" or "a small minority of".

Why does this happen? One reason may simply be that most people do not cycle, so they have no empathy with this group of people. This is exacerbated by the fact that a small minority of cyclists do ride on pavements and speed through red lights, thus confirming the prejudice of those who already see them as one big blob.

This isn’t fair or just, but that is pretty irrelevant when it comes to engaging people on the issue. Your organisation’s reputation and that of the wider voluntary sector doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to everyone else. You need to campaign for your reputation in the same way you campaign to tackle the issues you are seeking to change.

Many in the cycling community are working hard to increase levels of empathy, to promote people on bikes rather than cyclists, to encourage audiences to identify themselves or people they care about as people on bikes. It is harder to make blanket judgements on a group if someone you love is a member.

Just as crucially though, many cycling organisations are refusing to apologise for the behaviour of some cyclists as it simply validates the prejudice that lies behind it  – they will condemn the behaviour of the few but set it in context by promoting the benefits that cycling brings and the fact that the vast majority of cyclists behave responsibly.

Like cyclists, the voluntary sector is such a broad church that it makes a mockery of lumping all its members in together, but that is exactly what is happening. Many charities are very good at creating empathy, but not enough is being done across the sector to create that empathy bridge more broadly, to put a human face on both the work it does and the impact is has.

Alongside that, it definitely needs to do more to call out the bad behaviour of the few. That requires admitting that all is not rosy in the garden, which isn’t happening near enough at the moment. A small number of CEOs are paid too much, a small number of charities cannot justify their charitable status, some elements of fundraising practice are unethical and unbecoming of charities.

Condemn that, call for or take decisive action and then get on with telling the world about the difference you are making to the people and things they care about.

Peter Gilheany is PR director of Forster Communications

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