Expert view: Appeals at editor's discretion

Newspapers are quick to criticise charities for their lack of transparency, but a recent attempt to research Christmas charity appeals left me fuming about their own lack of openness.

It's manna from heaven for a small charity to 'win' a newspaper appeal. But the way newspapers choose their Christmas appeals can be secretive and random.

Our problems started at the switchboard, where most operators had no idea who dealt with their organisations' Christmas appeals. Only one paper's website gave the information. We often ended up with someone who was rude, vague, or both. One editor's assistant said there was "no rhyme or reason why one charity was chosen over another".

In another case, it transpired that a major newspaper chose its Christmas charity because someone at the charity's PR company had a personal connection with the editor. Another newspaper representative said: "There is no process for applying for the Christmas appeal. It's entirely at the editor's discretion."

Even the charities who benefited from the appeals were cagey. I don't blame them. They are on to a winner, in a field with no competitors.

There are a few examples of openness among the national newspapers. The best is The Daily Telegraph's appeal, to which any charity can apply and which has a clear process. A committee goes through the letters received, draws up a shortlist and interviews those shortlisted before reaching a decision.

I can't think of any company that chooses its charity partner without a written process and criteria. Media corporation Sky is advertising the opportunity to become its charity partner for three years. It will make a film about each of the shortlisted charities, air the films and ask viewers to vote.

This proves that media companies can run open, clearly managed processes for choosing charities. The difference between Sky and most newspapers is that Sky has a dedicated corporate social responsibility department. Responsibility for CSR at most newspapers rests with people for whom it is a small part of their job, if anyone is assigned the responsibility at all.

Given the power newspapers wield to raise huge sums for the charities they choose to promote at Christmas, information about how they make their choices should be available to all potential applicants.

If an editor usually makes a personal choice influenced by people he meets on the cocktail circuit, charities need to know that - so they can gatecrash the right parties rather than sweat over a carefully crafted letter.

- Penelope Gibbs is director of online contacts book askCharity.

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