Editorial: Charity rivalries alienate people

Instead of jostling for position, the sector should think about joint action to defend the methods and reputation of charities generally, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

One of the most interesting contributions to the recent International Fundraising Congress came from the consultant Dan Pallota, who described his plans to set up a "charity defence council", initially in the US and eventually in other countries.

This would, among other things, use advertising to dispel public ignorance about charities and explain why part of donations went on running costs and overheads.

The cynical response by some was that this was a blatant piece of self-interest from a man whose agency is called Advertising for Humanity. But, as Pallota pointed out, charitable giving has remained stagnant for many years, and flogging the usual half-dead horses does little more than keep it from sinking. If it is to grow again, some kind of collective action by the sector may be something that could re-inspire public confidence.

Pallota's theme can be linked with some of the remarks by Baroness Shirley Williams at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' annual Hinton Lecture last week. She was positive about the potential for charities to help find new and better ways to provide public services, but she was less than complimentary about charities competing with, and even lobbying against, each other. There was too much of it, she said, and it didn't do the reputation of the sector much good.

A good example of this, perhaps, is the competition over clothing collections, analysed recently by reporter Sophie Hudson in this magazine. Recent criticisms by the British Heart Foundation of collections carried out for charities without shops highlighted the intense culture of competition in this area. The danger is that the public declares a plague on all their houses and turns against this method of giving.

Competition between charities is inevitable and is becoming more intense as household incomes fall and economic prospects remain bleak. But a way needs to be found to balance this with collective sector action, Pallota-style, to defend, enhance and explain the general charity cause.

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