Analysis: 'The trustees were right to shut down Savile charities'

Sector experts consider the lessons in the disgrace of the late broadcaster

Jimmy Savile
Jimmy Savile
On 3 October, ITV broadcast a documentary which shattered the reputation of the late media personality Jimmy Savile. It reported distressing accusations that he was a serial sex offender who preyed on children.

The ensuing tide of allegations threatened to engulf the two charities which bore his name and, 20 days later, the trustees decided to close them for good.

The charities’ combined assets of more than £5m will be given to a new or existing charity or charities with similar objects, and, because these are unlikely to be named, people will no longer be able to link those funds with Savile.

A scandal of this proportion is every charity leader’s nightmare, so did the trustees of Savile’s charities get it right, and what should others do in a comparable situation?  

The trustees of the Jimmy Savile Charitable Trust and the Jimmy Savile Stoke Mandeville Hospital Trust, who decline to discuss why they acted as they did, were immediately plunged into a reputational crisis when the documentary was broadcast.

"From the outset, there were significant challenges because Jimmy Savile was integral to their brand and the trustees had to decide if the accusations were factual or not," says George Ames, a director at Forster Communications. "The situation was complicated because the allegations emerged after his death and he was not around to answer for himself."

The trustees had to assess the impact of the revelations about Savile on the two charities and decide what action to take.

"The reputation of a charity is one of its assets and trustees have a legal duty to protect it," says Ann Phillips, chair of the Charity Law Association. "However, the duty of trustees is to act in the best interests of the charity’s objects, not the charity itself. The question was how best to achieve that."

Four days after the documentary aired, the trustees issued a statement saying they were considering changing the names of the charities – a good move, Ames argues.

"As the situation escalated, so did the trustees’ response," he says. "They moved swiftly to talk about changing the names – to their credit – and they did the right thing in monitoring the situation, seeking legal advice and talking to the police."

But as the number of people coming forward with fresh accusations grew daily, it became clear that changing the charities’ names was not going to be enough.

"This would not have removed the association in the public’s mind between the charities and Jimmy Savile," says Phillips. "The trustees would have had to be guided by the best interests of the charitable purposes it was set up for and assess if they could continue to serve them."

From a PR perspective as well, a name change was not going to suffice. "Savile has become a toxic brand and the crimes he is accused of are extremely serious," says Ames. "His name was integral to the brand of the charities and they supported the very people he is accused of abusing."

On 22 October, the trustees concluded the situation was unsalvageable. They decided to close both charities for good and transfer about £5.4m in assets to other related charities, which have not been named.

According to Phillips, most trusts are now able to transfer their assets to another charity. "Modern trusts have the power to serve the charity’s objects by transferring the assets to other charities, if it is decided that this is in the best interests of those objects" she says.

The trustees were under no obligation to reveal publicly which charities the money went to, according to the Charity Commission.

"For the Jimmy Savile Charitable Trust, the existing objects allow the trustees to apply the money to general charitable purposes," says a commission spokeswoman.  "In the case of the Jimmy Savile Stoke Mandeville Hospital Trust, the trustees are working with the hospital and all other interested parties to ensure funds are used for the purpose they were raised or donated for."

Ames says continuation of the charities was untenable and the trustees made the right call. "From a fundraising point of view, it would have been a significant challenge to get people to give money to any cause associated with Saville, so this was the correct decision," he said.

What general advice do Ames and Phillips have for charities that might find themselves in a media firestorm? "The best approach is preventative rather than remedial, and charities that have a strong association with an individual facing such allegations have a duty of due diligence and risk management to make sure they will not bring the charity into disrepute," says Phillips. 

Ames suggests four steps: take no action if the criticism has limited reach, monitor the situation as it develops, respond if necessary and, finally, escalate the response as needed.

"The best strategy for charities is to plan ahead, consider all eventualities and draft responses if the worst happens," said Ames.

"We also recommend that charities set up a pre-determined crisis response team that brings together key people and, if the crisis involves illegal activity, report it to the police and make sure your actions are above board. Above all, be calm and measured in your responses."  

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