Interview: Dominic Nutt

The Save the Children ex-staffer, who accused the charity of refusing to criticise corporate donors, warns that compromise can follow compromise until the mission is forgotten

Dominic Nutt
Dominic Nutt

It took many years for Dominic Nutt to decide to turn whistleblower and tell the BBC's Panorama programme about his experience of Save the Children refusing to criticise companies that were corporate donors, and he says he is still not entirely comfortable about what he did. But since the programme was broadcast last month, the reaction has confirmed him in his view that communications teams at many charities face similar dilemmas.

"There has been great support from former colleagues at Save the Children, and I have also received about 30 to 40 emails from across the sector from people I both have and haven't known," says Nutt, former head of news at Save. "I've also received many tweets in support. So far, only one person has said directly to me that they disagree. I'm sure there are more but I haven't heard from them."

Nutt says his decision finally to speak out was influenced by circumstantial evidence suggesting that pulling criticism of corporate donors has become a widespread practice in charities. But he declines to name other charities because of a lack of hard evidence. "I do have hard evidence about Save the Children, but that is just a start," he says. "Peers from other charities are beginning to look at this issue and are coming to me saying they are having the same problems and debates." He believes it is an issue for all charities that receive external funding and says, for example, that international aid organisations have not spoken out about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear of upsetting the US market.

Nutt, who worked at Save the Children from 2007 to 2009 and has also been on the communications teams at Christian Aid and World Vision UK, made headlines when he told Panorama in December that Save management scrapped a press release criticising British Gas price rises in order to avoid damage to its corporate partnership with the energy company - a partnership worth £1.5m over 10 years. He says he has since heard of Save campaigns being quashed for fear of alienating EDF, a potential donor. The charity says his account of events is "wrong and misleading".

One of Nutt's roles at Save the Children was to conduct due diligence on potential corporate partnerships. "But I and a corporate team colleague knew that anything we found would be ignored, so it was pointless," he says. He cites one exception when the charity's chief executive refused money from an oil company that was also funding the Burmese government, for fear of being exposed by the Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns against human rights abuses in that country. "The chief executive pulled the funding, but I was told never to ask to do that again," he says. "So that was my one chance."

He acknowledges that he has opened himself up to personal criticism and that, in his current freelance capacity, he might not be considered for future charity roles. "Previously I have spoken out internally, at Save the Children and World Vision UK in particular, and on discussion panels," he says. "I've said that charities are increasingly going down a marketing route instead of a campaigning one and that they should rebalance this.

"I don't know how going public will pan out for me professionally, but I decided that I would be a rank hypocrite if I did not take it on.

"I would be naive if I thought that doing good on the ground was not equally part of a charity's aim. I know that Save the Children is doing good work in very difficult circumstances from Angola to Zimbabwe and many places in between. But I feel it is time for there to be a gentle hand on the tiller - time for some self-correction and self-awareness to question whether the sector is travelling in the right direction."

He strongly supports the importance of charities campaigning. "You could spend all the money that Save the Children raised last year - just shy of £300m - in a village in Rwanda and do a great deal of good, but you wouldn't change the world," he says. "Structures keep people in poverty and marginalised. The only thing you can do is campaign to change those structures. If you start editing yourself and not speaking out, it becomes another compromise, followed by a further one until the charity is a marketing organisation that has forgotten its mission."

Nutt hopes that by exposing what he saw at Save the Children he will encourage the sector to become more questioning and refuse to allow its silence to be bought. "I'm not saying you should never take money from corporates," he says. "But you should engage with them robustly, have an adult relationship with them and reserve the right to speak out if there is a problem. I think that charities speaking out will win them as many supporters as it will lose."

Dominic Nutt CV:

2013: Director of communications and public affairs, Lord Saatchi's Cancer Initiative
2012: Director of communications, Roehampton University
2010: Associate communications director, World Vision UK
2009: Head of communications, Catalyst Housing Group
2007: Head of news, Save the Children
1999: Head of emergencies communications, Christian Aid

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