Editorial: Charities aren't as daft as they might look

Stephen Cook, editor

Sales people live in an unforgiving world. They are often relatively young and inexperienced, and they work on low salaries with demanding targets that determine their bonuses.

The temptation to embellish the good bits of the proposition and play down the less appealing ones can be extreme. Most of the time, small lapses don't matter too much - then someone out there kicks up, and suddenly it all gets serious.

Something like this seems to have happened at Health Care Communications, which invites charities to pay for advertising links on the intranet directories it supplies to health trusts (see our front-page story and News Analysis, page 10). The deal usually includes a brief mention in quarterly emails to trust staff and on staffroom posters, and sometimes a 'flier' that is put into pigeonholes or distributed with wage slips. It's easy to see how, with a bit of blarney and artistic licence, this could be presented as a 'partnership' with a large organisation, complete with all the possibilities that word implies of revenue opportunities that no self-respecting fundraiser would want to ignore. That is roughly how a number of charities were permitted to perceive it, and the company has admitted as much. No doubt the £6,000 fee played a part in all this.

Fortunately, some of the charities had their doubts, and a warning message appeared on an Institute of Fundraising e-forum. The cat is now out of the bag, and the company is conducting an inquiry to make sure all its marketing activity is closely in line with the true nature of the deal.

It says that 14 out of the 16 charities it has contacted are to continue with contracts, in some cases free of charge.

Perhaps the main message to charities from this episode is: don't be seduced by fulsome sales talk, get all the promised benefits in writing and maintain a healthy suspicion of deals that seem too good to be true.

And the message to hard-sell merchants might be: don't get the idea that charities are easy meat - they're not as daft as they might look, and they know how to bite back.

It's like the first cuckoo of spring - local councils are squaring budgets by delaying payments to voluntary organisations and the Department of Health is playing fast and loose with Compact deadlines over Section 64 grants. There's meant to be a new deal - but in Whitehall and town hall, old habits die painfully hard.

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