Analysis: Do we need a Charity Defence Council?

Recent criticism of the sector has prompted some to call for a body to protect its reputation. Andy Hillier canvasses whether that model could work here and looks at the US example.

Charity Defence Council
Charity Defence Council

At the Institute of Fundraising National Awards in July, Mark Astarita, chair of the institute, had clearly had enough of criticism of fundraisers and reached for one of the year's more memorable phrases. "Every time we rush out of the trenches defending our right to ask," he said, "every other charity leader happy to take the cash has run for the hills with their petticoats showing."

Where, he asked, were the chief executives, trustees, politicians, church leaders and opinion-formers standing up for fundraising? And was it time for the UK to think about setting up an organisation prepared to defend the sector against its critics, modelled on the Charity Defense Council in the US?

Less than a month later, The Daily Telegraph, which has criticised the ring-fencing of the overseas aid budget, printed an article detailing the salaries of the chief executives of the 14 charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee, some of whom are paid more than £100,000 a year. Other papers joined in the criticism, but there was a limited response from the sector.

Five months on, Astarita says despair prompted him to float the idea of a defence council. "The question about chief executive pay has put the issue on a different level," he says. "It's now much more in the public domain, and in a sense it's quite a good thing that it's not just fundraisers under the cosh. We need to do something for the brand 'charity' - we need the likes of David Cameron and Ed Miliband to stand up for charities.

"It will be a sad day when we feel the need to come together in a defensive way. But we do need to have a big conversation about what civil society is and how we fund it. Figures from the Charities Aid Foundation suggest that giving to charity is going to become more of a minority sport. We therefore need to raise the question of what kind of voluntary sector we need. At the moment it feels as if the sector has been undermined and charities have become easy targets."

The notion of a body that would defend the reputation of the charity sector as a whole and educate the public about how modern charities work has found favour with others in the sector. Last week, Nick Brooks, a partner at the accountancy firm Kingston Smith and a member of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' inquiry into executive pay, told Third Sector he favoured a UK organisation along the lines of the CDC.

Brooks expands on his comments: "You have the CBI representing commercial organisations, but I don't think the charity sector has an equivalent, even though it employs a lot of people and has a large income. It feels like it's vulnerable to attack."

He acknowledges that there are umbrella bodies representing various parts of the charity sector, but doesn't think they are ideally placed for such a role. "I suppose this could be done by the existing bodies working together, but then there's the politics involved," he says. "The NCVO would be the more obvious choice, but I'm not sure that it quite fits the bill. And it would need more funding to do this."

Ian MacQuillin, head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, agrees that there needs to be a body along the lines of the CDC, arguing that much of the recent criticism of chief executive pay was not adequately countered by the sector. "But it should not be called the Charity Defence Council - that names implies that we need to be defensive," he says.

He believes the organisation's purpose should be to promote the difference that charities make and to educate the public about the realities of running modern-day charities and the costs involved. He says that it should learn from the work the PFRA has carried out. "We've helped to halve the negative media coverage of face-to-face fundraising," MacQuillin says. "We've done this by engaging with objectors."

He cites the PFRA response to comments made about chuggers last year by Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal. "We responded to criticisms by meeting people who might be receptive to views, such as local councillors," says MacQuillin. "We can't change Elphicke's mind, but we can talk about the realities of fundraising and the costs involved, and put the situation into context for those who might be influenced by him."

Joe Saxton, co-founder of the sector consultancy nfpSynergy, says the CDC is "terribly named" and that a UK equivalent is simply not needed. "I think what is needed is a Charity Explanation Council," he says. "The sector needs to spend more time saying how things work and what we do. Arts organisations get far more coverage than charities - the BBC has its own arts correspondents, but it doesn't have one for charities."

Saxton believes that every charity should communicate clearly to its supporters how much money it spends on non-charitable activities. Much of the recent backlash occurred because charities had failed to tell supporters clearly how much senior staff are paid, he says: "If most of your supporters don't like how much your chief executive is paid, you shouldn't blame the media."

But Saxton also thinks the sector must find new ways of raising its profile and that the Charities Aid Foundation could be key. "It is one of the few organisations in the sector with the resources to help," he says.

Ben Russell, head of media at the Charities Aid Foundation, says it already plays a role alongside other sector organisations in promoting the work of charities to the public, politicians and opinion-formers, but he won't be drawn on whether this role should expand. "It's an ongoing challenge for us and the sector," he says. "There's always a need to make the case for giving to charities, and emphasising the difference that they make, in order to ensure the level of support charities receive is maintained. We have to keep talking about these issues and get across the impact." Another body that might fulfil the role is the Impact Coalition, set up in 2005 to improve the transparency of the sector and public understanding of how it works. It is led by a steering group of 13, mainly from umbrella bodies, and more than 400 charities and trade bodies have put their names to it. But the body's funding has been cut significantly in recent years and it is little known outside the sector.

Asheem Singh, director of policy at Acevo, which was responsible for the secretariat of the coalition between 2009 and 2011 until its transfer to the Institute of Fundraising, says it's "striving to create tools" that enable charities or social enterprises to convey the good they do and their value for money. He cites a series of essays about accountability called Through a Glass Darkly, published earlier this year, as evidence of its work.

Singh agrees the sector needs to get better at communicating its value, but says: "I am not sure a version of the Charity Defense Council is the way to go. I would be concerned that without sustained, long-term application it might not deliver. There is little use in a short-term public education campaign about something so fundamental as value for money, no matter what its scale."

Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the NCVO, agrees the sector should not seek simple, short-term solutions. "We don't need a CDC because, although there's a problem, there's no crisis," he says. "Levels of giving and volunteering are relatively stable, and the level of trust is relatively high compared with other institutions."

He adds that in the short term all charities need to get better at communicating to supporters how they work, rather than just leaving it to the NCVO or a new body. "It's everyone's responsibility," he says. "If the public doesn't understand what we're doing, it's not because it's stupid - it's because we're not doing things right."

THE AMERICAN WAY: The Charity Defense Council

The Charity Defense Council in the US was founded in 2012 by the high-profile fundraiser and author Dan Pallotta to promote the message that charities should defend their overheads and pay proper salaries.

"The public demands low overheads," Pallotta told Third Sector in 2011. "The media is interested in sensationalising issues based on what the public wants. Charities are afraid to do anything other than what the public wants. So that's where we need a mind-shift."

The council seeks to respond to inaccurate and sensational reporting; to mount "brave and daring public ad campaigns" to change the way in which the public thinks about charities; to use its legal defence fund to challenge counterproductive laws and regulations; to campaign for a national civil rights act for charity and social enterprises to replace laws that it thinks work against the sector; and to organise the sector on a town-by-town and state-by-state basis.

To finance itself, the council seeks grants and offers membership ranging from $9 (£5.50) to $49 (£30) a month. Charity workers are also encouraged to wear "I'm Overhead" T-shirts that can be purchased from its website for $24.99 (£15.30).

No one from the council was available to talk to Third Sector about its record so far. Last year, Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, wrote an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy in the US describing Pallotta as "not a credible defender of non-profits. He appears not to grasp the notion that markets fail and that one of non-profits' primary roles is to address those failures, not to mimic corporations. He has consistently disparaged non-profits."

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