Opinion: Charities need to sing for their supper

It's like listening for birdsong. Sit quietly downwind of any metropolis in early evening and you will hear the soft lament of the charity boss at dusk: "Why oh why won't someone just give us enough money to do a good job?"

Nick Cater
Nick Cater

Addressing that topic at Surrey Community Action's recent Voluntary and Community Conference was a chance to ponder again the vexed issue of charity underperformance (or should that be over-expectations?). Put aside that the public is mean, that businesses are selfish, that foundations are saving for a rainy decade, that government, national and local, wants something for nothing, and that the lottery ... well, we all know what's wrong with the lottery.

Amid a sector awash with the young, it is easy to forget the past, such as the Windsor group, established by venerable men and a few women from major charities at least 20 years ago to consider how to expand the total charity 'cake'. Like pretty well all similar initiatives, Windsor failed to do much about the cake, except perhaps to consume a little with the tea during its consultations.

Fast forward and the charity bit of the British gross domestic product is still far too small, and the rising number of charities chase, in effect, the same pot of cash, dividing it between the very few haves and the vast majority that are living on crumbs.

One reason for this collective failing of individual charities may be that awful British reticence to 'make the ask', especially if they know too little about targets' wealth or interests to do more than rattle a metaphorical tin. Faced with such charity beggars, most pay them off with the least or cross the street. Few donate at a level they can really afford. They may respond in a crisis but are far less generous when tackling causes rather than symptoms.

I was cruel enough in Surrey - a county with plenty of need alongside the millionaires, billionaires and Russian oligarchs - to ask how many charities there had ever received a pound (or a rouble) from those of wealth. Not one hand went up. Is that the challenge for charities, especially those pecking a living: having the data, contacts and background information on individuals and groups to successfully sell serious giving?

In a competitive world, where marketing matters so much more than meaning, charities must always sing for their supper like the sweetest songbird.

- Nick Cater is a consultant, speaker and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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