Beth Upton: Is it time to put this sexist fundraising to bed?

An NHS Trust was right to refuse money raised for it by men dressed as sexualised nurses, writes our columnist

Beth Upton
Beth Upton

A few weeks ago, a couple of newspapers ran a story about an NHS Trust in Shropshire turning down money that had been raised in a way the trust had specifically requested not happen: a bed push that has been happening in the town for the past 30 years.

It was not the bed pushing (side note, there is no longer an actual bed because they are too precious to be loaned out nowadays) that was objected to, but the dress code of the pushers: all the participants were men dressed as female nurses. The picture I’ve seen shows short hemlines, low-cut tops, a bra partially on show, a garter and fake boobs as well as wigs, tights and trainers. The trust’s statement makes it clear that it was this sexualisation of nurses that was at fault, not the act of dressing as a nurse nor of pushing a non-existent bed.

The story raises three important – but separate – questions. First, is it wrong in this day and age to dress like an extra from Carry On Doctor? I hope we can all agree that these men were portraying an untrue stereotype of nurses that is reminiscent of the Carry On… films and Benny Hill, not the type of entertainment that is created in the 21st century. What is more contentious is whether this is discriminatory or just a bit of harmless fun.

In her book How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran advises anyone faced with such a predicament to swap the genders and see if we would still behave in the same way.

So let us ask: had a bunch of women dressed as male nurses, would we have reacted in the same way? The challenge in this situation would be to make male nurses as sexualised as these men made their female parodies and still make them nurse-like. Presumably they’d just look like nurses who are all wearing trousers and might have stubble drawn on their chins.

Against the "Moran Measure", then, this does look like sexist behaviour and was therefore wrong. And we have a duty, all of us, to stamp out behaviour that discriminates, whether it is obvious and occasional, or subtle and daily.

There was a time when "blacking up" was a normal part of entertainment on screen and on stage. In 2017, we know that this is unacceptable behaviour, but in the years after the first exclamation that this was discriminatory behaviour there were probably people who were not entirely sure if this should be damned or not. It took a conscious effort for those people to remind themselves that "normal" is not the same as "right".

The second question is whether bodies such as the NHS and charities should simply take any money offered, no matter the cost?

It is our duty as fundraisers to maximise the income for our organisations. It goes against the grain to turn it down or turn it away: after all, it is never easy to hit our targets or raise the money our organisations need. One of the participants used the "times of austerity" argument to point out the flaw in the decision to turn down the money.

Equally, however, we are duty-bound to follow the policies set by our organisations for these sorts of eventualities, and sometimes donations do have to be turned away. Guidelines on this are available from the Charity Commission to support trustees in setting clear policies in advance of specific situations. The chief executive of this NHS trust acted together with the trustees in making this decision, and it is their right to accept or refuse any donation within its policies.

Consider the organisations that turned down Nestlé’s donations at the height of the baby-milk scandal, for another example.

The third question is: why is nobody lambasting the League of Friends that raised the money for choosing to ignore the request of the trust not to fundraise in this way? Its reasons for dismissing this request to stop were that it believed this to be light-hearted and there was a 30-year tradition. The "blacking up" analogy works well here, but also consider the bed at the centre of the bed push: the Ludlow Star’s original reporting explained that the bed push had taken place "in recent years without a bed because modern medical beds are too hi-tech and valuable to wheel around the streets".

Surely if bed push fundraising does not have to include an actual bed because this equipment is so valuable, it can also continue without the sexism. Aren’t respect and equality are also valuable?

Beth Upton is chief executive of Money Tree Fundraising

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