Vicky McDermott
Vicky McDermott

Charities are at risk of being seen as "left-wing, sandal-wearing hippies" by the outside world and need to get smarter about how they campaign, the chief executive of the Papworth Trust told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference last night.

Speaking on the panel at the Acevo event "Can Modern Charities be Trusted?" in Birmingham, Vicky McDermott, who became the disability charity’s youngest chief executive when she was appointed in 2014, said the perception of charity workers as strongly left-wing was an issue because it failed to take into account the wide range of political views held within the sector.

She was responding to an audience member who observed that there was a pervasive left-wing culture in the sector, which had created a disconnect in some cases between charities’ views and those of their donors.

McDermott said it appeared that the sector was not listening enough to its beneficiaries. "There’s a huge risk of us being seen as left-wing, sandal-wearing hippies, which is a bit of an issue," she said. "Our positioning and campaigning isn’t about giving views to our beneficiaries; it’s about giving voice to their views, and that’s what we need to be doing in a smarter way."

The panel also featured Sir Stephen Bubb, the former chief executive of Acevo, who argued that charities should not pay attention to the results of polls run by companies such as YouGov, which was represented on the panel by its head of political and social research, Joe Twyman.

Bubb argued that if polling companies had existed in centuries gone by they would have found alarmingly low trust in charities. Paying attention to such data could have prevented some of the greatest social and campaigning achievements in history from taking place, he said.

While it was important for charities to make changes, they should do this to be more effective, not because of polls, said Bubb.

Twyman, who presented data on public trust in charities from YouGov’s Charity Index, responded by saying that charities did not have to do what the public wanted, but did need to know what they thought.

Knowing about the public’s dislike of high chief executive salaries, for example, he said, alerted charities to the fact that they should explain why such pay was justified. "That information is power", he said.

Attendees also heard from Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Speaking from the audience, he said the UK would benefit from following the funding model favoured by a number of charities in the US, whereby foundations fund their core costs so that any money given by individual donors goes directly to the cause. "Donors want to know that they’re making a difference," he said.

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