Who spoke up for charities in the media onslaught?

The Understanding Charities Group aims to counter negative attitudes towards charities, but it has not featured in the latest fundraising controversy, writes Susannah Birkwood

In September 2014 a new initiative was created to tackle negative coverage about the charity sector and educate the public about how modern charities work.

The Understanding Charities Group was set up by CharityComms and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations after research by the NCVO found that many sector chief executives felt the sector needed to develop a stronger narrative to help explain why charities do what they do. The group currently has more than 170 participants, many of whom work for household-name charities such as the RSPCA and Unicef.

Soon after its formation, the UCG established four task groups to advance its objectives. One of these would focus on generating more generic media coverage for charities and create a media rebuttal protocol.

Last October, the UCG published a document detailing its aims for the future. The document said it would probably take five to 10 years to yield any substantive changes to public attitudes, but it might be possible to develop a more effective system for responding to media scandals within six months.

Seven months later, in May, the first newspaper stories were published about the death of the poppy seller Olive Cooke. During the media storm that ensued - and which is still raging - the UCG remained quiet. Some in the sector grew frustrated by the lack of a cohesive media response from charities.

"The UCG hasn't been sufficiently nimble," says Ron Finlay, founder of the cross-sector PR consultancy Ron Finlay Communications. "The group should have responded when the opportunity to act was there."

Finlay says the group could have taken advantage of the recent spike in interest in the sector and used it as an opportunity to change perceptions. It should have contacted the charities that were in the limelight and offered to speak to the media on their behalf, he says.

Longer timeframe

But Joe Saxton, a consultant who leads the media task group, says the group did not speak out because it was not ready. "We are looking at achieving our goals over a five-to-10-year timeframe," he says. Another factor, he adds, is that not everyone in the sector agrees there is a negative perception of charities among the public; many believe the recent coverage is just a coordinated campaign by a small right-wing group.

In May, the NCVO started advertising a vacancy for a media network coordinator, whose role would be to encourage the press to take a more comprehensive view of the issues affecting charities. But a suitable candidate has not been found and the NCVO is reviewing the post.

Media attacks

Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity chief executives body Acevo, says the UCG could not have been expected to take a more proactive stance during the recent media attacks because the media tends to revert to established sources when a crisis occurs. "The UCG has been around for only nine or 10 months and doesn't really have the connections or a figurehead," he says.

Singh says one reason why the UCG's predecessor, the Impact Coalition - an initiative set up in 2005 to improve public understanding of how the sector works - ended in 2013 is that it was resourced insufficiently.

Will the UCG fare better? The NCVO says it has provided funding and a free venue for the group to meet. It is now considering transferring to the group some funds that were originally offered to the NCVO by several charities for it to carry out research into public trust.

The UCG is optimistic that over time it will change public perceptions of charities. The group will host a media training day on 27 August to help charities deal with issues raised by journalists, donors and volunteers. The training, which will be carried out by the firm Inside Edge, costs £100 for charities with incomes of more than £5m. There is no charge for smaller charities.

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