Andrew Taylor-Dawson: Two lessons from the charity scandals

Communicating our practices is essential for maintaining public confidence in fundraising

Andrew Taylor-Dawson
Andrew Taylor-Dawson

As a sector, we’ve weathered numerous storms in recent years. At one point it felt like barely a day would go by without a fresh crop of headlines. From the tragic death of Olive Cooke to pieces on fundraising spend and senior pay, it was hard not to feel like the fundraising profession was becoming increasingly embattled.

Public trust is essential for fundraisers and the sector, so it felt like we had hit a real low and the future was hugely uncertain. During the period before the new regulator was fully operational it was difficult for even the most experienced fundraisers to know where things might end up. During the crises a million and one conversations were had within the sector about lessons learned and regaining public trust.

Now the dust has truly settled, I think it’s worth all of us taking stock. For me, the lessons boil down to two core areas, which are fundamentally intertwined. First, as sector we must ensure that we defend our practices when they are being misrepresented to whip up public outrage. At the height of the scandals, we lacked a real unified response, while practitioners and board members sought to respond and make sense of what was happening.

Second, we must ensure that we always bring the public with us and that, as organisations, our own targets don’t outstrip the importance of supporter care and providing a good experience for donors. To my mind, this is the area where we have made by far the greatest progress.

There were certainly mistakes. The need to deliver high volumes of new direct debit sign-ups, whether from telephone fundraising, face-to-face or other areas, had bred complacency in some quarters. Too little scrutiny was put on the practices that certain agencies were using.

However, the media response was highly disproportionate and fuelled misconceptions about the motivations and practices of fundraising organisations. Now that we are in a better place as a sector, it’s worth reflecting on the dual responsibility to defend our approaches where needs be while keeping the experience of the donor central to our thinking.

In recent years, it has been extremely frustrating for all of us in fundraising to witness some of the misinformation that has worked its way into the public discussion. I welcome constructive debate and criticism where it is warranted, but we need to be better at countering arguments that fuel public misconceptions.

It can’t have escaped the notice of many that Gina Miller's True and Fair Foundation has announced that it is closing. The foundation became controversial over several years for claims it made in a series of reports about fundraising spend and other issues. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations memorably described one of its reports as "neither true nor fair" in a strongly worded rebuttal.

For me, the response to the True and Fair Foundation by the likes of the NCVO and other organisations in the sector was heartening to see. I welcome debate and discussion when it is evidence-based, but we must always be prepared to make a strong case when unfounded arguments are made.

We must never lose sight of the individual and how our fundraising activities are received, but this must be tempered by a robust approach to defending our practices. This is essential if we are to stop misinformation from driving discussions about fundraising and charity more broadly.

Andrew Taylor-Dawson is development manager at the human rights organisation Liberty

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