User Voice's Mark Johnson urges charity leaders not to use beneficiaries for PR

The chief of the offenders charity tells Acevo conference that service users are too often 'service-used' by charities

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson

Charities must ensure their beneficiaries remain services users and are not "service-used" for PR opportunities, the chief executive of the offenders charity User Voice has told the Acevo annual conference.

Mark Johnson told the charity leaders gathering in London yesterday about his own experiences of addiction, homelessness and prison. "I've been diagnosed with everything; I’ve been locked up," he said. "Drugs and alcohol – you name it, I've experienced it."

He said many charities used their beneficiaries, rather than the other way around. He said charities might, for example, set up a choir as a project for ex-offenders on the grounds that it was likely to get good press coverage, rather than because it was likely to be successful.

"What I've seen a lot of charities do is become dependent on PR," he said. "There's limited evidence of the effectiveness of charities, so they rely on PR. Services users are often ‘service-used’."

Johnson asked the conference: "Do you listen to your end users? Most people say 'yes we do'." He urged attendees to ask themselves whether they simply listened only to the most palatable views of those beneficiaries who were easiest to engage with.

He said this phenomenon was exacerbated because the sector was "being seduced" by government to bid for contracts and work with the state, meaning that commissioners then became the prime stakeholders in charities.

"I think we're basically being sucked into a world and an ideology that that does a disservice to the people we claim to support," he said.

Paul Farmer, chair-elect of Acevo and chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, who was chairing the session, took note of a lively Twitter discussion provoked by Johnson’s speech, which he said had provided the standout lesson from the morning.

"The overarching message from you, following what has been said on Twitter, has been the importance of focusing on our beneficiaries," Farmer said.

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