Editorial: The age of innocence may be coming to an end

Charities are likely to face further attacks, writes Stephen Cook, and the sector needs to consider how to defend itself

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Two stories last week pointed up one of the most serious questions the sector faces at present. The first was the speech to the Charity Finance Group by Trevor Morris, visiting professor in public relations at the University of Westminster; the second was the announcement by the RSPCA that it was appointing a strategic agency to improve awareness of the charity's work.

Morris told the CFG risk conference that charities had grown bigger and more powerful in recent times, were "not seen as so innocent any more" and faced the prospect of more attacks. They should prepare for "a moral crisis", he said.

The RSPCA is arguably facing such a crisis, consisting of a concerted campaign against it by some politicians, sections of the media and other factions in the animal welfare world. It says appointing an agency is part of "streamlining its communications", but there's clearly more to it.

Morris is right, the RSPCA is taking action and some observers are putting the question in a wider context, as explored in our analysis on pages 8 and 9: does the sector need an organisation along the lines of the Charity Defense Council in the US?

In general, the powers that be seem to be against it. They argue variously that the sector already defends itself adequately, that each charity or sub-sector should look after itself, or that the job is being done, up to a point, by the like of the Charities Aid Foundation or the Impact Coalition.

The first argument holds little water: the sector's main public defence against criticism of face-to-face fundraising and chief executive pay has been to pull the duvet over its head and wait for things to calm down. The second is more attractive: as Morris says, charities need to be ready for a crisis in the "aggressive and fast-moving" news cycle, and some of them do come out and give battle when they are under fire.

The third argument doesn't really convince. Sector bodies tend to be hesitant, cautious or divided in their responses. A defence council may not be the answer, but nonetheless there is a long way to go.

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