Last week, I wrote to the top 500 fundraising charities in the UK about the negative press coverage of fundraising that has appeared both in the press and on the radio. In case you missed them, it is worth giving a brief overview.
In the past three or four months, there has been considerable and negative coverage in Scotland. Much of the coverage was calling on the Scottish Executive to "tighten the rules" and in this respect it matched the wishes of the voluntary sector in Scotland as well. While many charities have suffered horribly from a downturn in voluntary income, a positive has been to increase the political pressure for the Scottish Executive to set up its own charity regulator. This is now taking place.
In England the majority of the focus has been on face-to-face fundraising.
Radio 4's Moneybox programme ran a generally balanced feature on face-to-face, but the chosen headline was, typically, simplistic and sensationalist.
This is what made the news in some of the coverage in the national press.
Further interest in the sector was generated by the announcement in the Queen's Speech that there would be a new Charities Bill. The Times chose to sift through the entire detail of the Queen's Speech and run its front-page headline on the regulation of face-to-face fundraising. They ignored the 23 other bills and the main items of the Charities Bill, but focused on one small and relatively minor aspect. The fact that they had just launched a tabloid version of The Times for commuters was no coincidence - the headlines for the first three days were the sorts of things to interest commuters, rather than real news.
To seek solace in such excuses totally and utterly misses the point.
We have a problem, a big problem, and we will all need to behave differently if it isn't going to get bigger. There is a vast gap between public perception of fundraising and the actual reality of it. In a subliminal sense, most of the public don't consider that there is a cost to fundraising at all.
In fact, most of us don't go around thinking about charity. Those who do, the committed volunteers, are more likely to believe the 'no-cost' line, since they give their time for free.
And we have all tried to hide fundraising costs in our accounts because our 'rival' might be doing the same, and then listened to the Comic Relief/Children in Need messages about how there is no cost to their fundraising.
So, while that gap between perception and reality is likely to occur in our volunteer-dominated sector, we have done nothing to help shrink it - in fact we have done a lot to widen it to unbridgeable levels.
This gap is bathed in the spotlight of stark reality when you look at the work of professional fundraising organisations (PFOs). If you are bumbling along thinking somehow or other that everything you give goes straight to the cause, and you then happen to bump into a PFO carrying out face-to face fundraising (or indeed walk into a huge office full of salaried fundraisers) then we hit problems.
It's this gap that journalists get suspicious about. They construe their ignorance to be our deceipt, and then they use that as a reason to smell blood.
So what can we do about it? It's a bit early to be talking about New Year resolutions, but the following might help:
- Never say "no comment". If you use a form of fundraising, then defend it. Join the likes of Shelter, which made its case on Moneybox.
- Don't bleat, take action. If you don't like a particular form of fundraising, then make the effort to improve your understanding of it. Talk to some of those charities that employ face-to-face and are now adding literally millions of pounds to their totals at no extra cost this year. They will tell you their one regret is that they didn't invest more heavily a few years ago!
- If you really think something is unethical, then challenge it and get the Codes of Fundraising Practice changed.
- Scream at the Institute and PFRA to do more. We both devote huge amounts of time briefing journalists. The fact that most articles are normally balanced in the end, even if the headline isn't, is proof of this communicative effort.
- And last but not least, a short and simple sentence that is of huge importance: explain your fundraising to your donors.