St John Ambulance has suspended its work with the fundraising agency Wesser International and launched an internal inquiry after a front page story in The Sun newspaper claimed that the agency had been targeting the elderly and taking a large chunk of the charity’s donations as profit.
The Fundraising Standards Board said it planned to look into the allegations to decide whether to launch an investigation into the practices highlighted by the coverage.
Under the headline ‘Sickening – Ambulance Charity’s Fury’, the newspaper reported today that a whistleblower had claimed that staff at Wesser, which undertakes door-to-door fundraising on the first-aid charity’s behalf, were told by a trainer delivering a training session to target elderly people who lived alone because it was "easier to get them to sign up".
It also reported that the firm – which is based in Hertfordshire and hires about 600 fundraisers a year – takes 45p of every pound donated for the first two years of a donor’s contributions.
The whistleblower, who was an ex-employee of the agency, told The Sun that staff members were never told to inform members of the public how their donations would be spent. The newspaper noted that Wesser’s founder, Martin Wesser, had a "luxurious lifestyle" which included owning a penthouse worth £1m in Madrid.
Sue Killen, chief executive at St John Ambulance, said in a statement that the charity condemned any targeting of elderly and vulnerable people and was "deeply concerned" by the allegations.
"As such we have suspended all activity with Wesser and have launched a full investigation into these claims," she said. "Immediate and appropriate action will be taken if there is found to be any truth in them."
Killen said the charity had repeatedly asked The Sun to share its evidence to assist in the investigation but the newspaper had refused.
She also said that three quarters of the supporters signed up by Wesser were aged between 25 and 59 and that St John Ambulance had a policy of not approaching anyone over the age of 75 for monthly donations.
She said all Wesser staff were directly trained by the charity in its values and ethics and that a recent internal audit showed that the agency was working in line with the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice.
She added that it was common practice for charities to pay agencies for the use of their services and that donors received information on the doorstep stating that Wesser received a fee.
Working with the agency was the most cost-effective way to reach new supporters as Wesser only charged fees when it secured new donors, said Killen.
A spokesman for Wesser, which has fundraised on behalf of St John Ambulance since 1997, said the agency had asked The Sun for details of the trainer referenced in the newspaper’s coverage because it wanted to investigate the individual and take the appropriate disciplinary action "which in this case would be immediate dismissal."
He said: "We take all matters of this nature very seriously. We will be taking action to ensure that this type of activity is eradicated but can assure you that this is not in any of our policies or training manuals."
Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, said in a statement: "We are concerned to see further allegations about a fundraising agency targeting elderly people when fundraising on behalf of its clients. Both Wesser Ltd and St John Ambulance are signed up to self-regulation and are members of the FRSB and so we will be in contact with them both shortly to discuss the issues raised."