When the premium was increased, I telephoned to cancel the direct debit for my car insurance and was immediately offered a substantial reduction to stop me leaving. Fifty years ago such behaviour would have been frowned upon but it is now commonplace. Firms rip-off loyal customers and, if it does not work they reduce the price.
As in a Cairo bazaar, if everyone knows the asking price is outrageous and it is necessary to haggle, this is not unethical. It is, however, unfair to people who do not know the rules, including citizens who, through age or disability cannot adapt to change. They pay a heavy price unless charities look after them.
Where does this leave charities that, for a price, allow commercial firms to use their names to sell to the public? There is a danger that judgements are influenced by what is financially advantageous. If I know anything about human nature, a charity employing staff on six figure salaries to run commercial partnerships will find it difficult to resist a questionable proposition that promises a substantial income.
Partnerships between charities and commercial enterprises can be in the public interest but, as Caesar discovered when his wife became the subject of gossip, it is not necessary to be caught in flagrante to be damaged.
If we believe that a commercial enterprise like a supermarket is behaving unethically we can shop elsewhere and one company’s misfortune becomes another’s opportunity. It does not work like that for charities. If doubts are raised about the integrity of a charity this will impact on others because no one is obliged to donate to any of them. A question mark hanging over one is a question mark over all.
Recent charity scandals about runaway salaries, aggressive fundraising and dubious commercial links relate almost exclusively to large national charities. The Press and public have extended the term "fat cats" from bankers and industrialists to charity leaders. Some local charities publically distance themselves from the behemoths that bring the very word "charity" into disrepute.
We need a system to rate the performance of large charities by indices other than growth. Such indices might include the ratio of the median salary to that of the chief executive, the use of zero hours contracts, the proportion of staff below the living wage, the ratio of administrative costs, an evaluation of commercial contracts and the number of fundraising complaints upheld. This would assist prospective donors and stimulate competition for star ratings.
Several organisations have the skills necessary to establish a system of ratings for the largest eighty charities. Which? has an impressive combination of technical expertise and entrepreneurial flair. Such a project would be a fitting tribute to Michael Young who, as well as founding the Consumers Association and Which? created and developed more flourishing third sector organisations than anyone else.
Now is the time to act, before public support for the sector further diminishes or the government takes draconian steps to curb charity excesses.
Wally Harbert has worked in the public service and in the third sector