Editorial: A shot in the arm for voluntary sector PR

Stephen Cook, editor

Just over a year ago, representatives of the top 50 UK charities met to decide how to go about improving the public's understanding of the sector and the benefits it brings to society.

The meeting followed a damaging scandal over a fraudulent charity in Scotland, some negative coverage of face-to-face fundraising in the national newspapers and survey evidence that showed people have a hazy perception of how charities operate. A working group of senior fundraisers, communicators and policy officers was appointed, and this week it presented the fruits of its labours to the Institute of Fundraising Convention.

First of all there's the name, the ImpACT (Improving Accountability, Clarity and Transparency ) Coalition - a tour de force of acronym-ese.

Then there's a short statement of principles, a 12-page document about six key messages (complete with 'wordbites'), a 22-page compendium of "honest answers to tough questions" and a page of criteria on how success is to be judged. The main drive now is to persuade as many charities as possible to join the coalition and make use of this comprehensive set of resources.

There are great advantages to getting everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Many smaller charities without full-time or experienced public relations staff are likely to find this set of documents especially useful.

Above all, it's important to have some fixed and consistent points of reference that convey to the world at large that a problem has been recognised, some serious thought put into it and an attempt made to improve matters.

The initiative is, of course, relentlessly upbeat, and there are moments when we seem to fall in with Candide's tutor, Dr Pangloss, for whom everything was always for the best in the best of all possible worlds. And on some of the more ticklish questions, such as gift pens and face-to-face fundraising, the more determined critics are unlikely to be deterred by what the coalition has to say.

Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm would come from some decent, extended TV coverage, and the coalition steering group is trying to come up with ideas that would appeal to programme makers. This is a huge challenge for both sides - the media would have to move beyond its view of charities as being a useful source of information, but otherwise dull, and charities would have to find ways of working with the media's demand for 'warts and all' access.

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