"We should all stop giving to charities." That comment, under yet another Daily Mail story, got several hundred "likes". Confirmation, if it were needed, that we’ve lost our way more than a bit. The Etherington review comes not a moment too soon, already adopted in full by the minister, Rob Wilson, even if the proposal for a Fundraising Preference Service remains contentious. But there’s a lot of anger in the sector from smaller local charities, fed up with how the misbehaviour of the big national ones has tarnished them all.
In contrast, and a tonic after fundraising’s summer of hell, was JustGiving’s recent awards night, a celebration of people-powered change-making, and a wonderful reminder that charity, never mind fundraising, is not all about charities. It’s about people, moved by a problem they care enough to do something about, choosing to do something.
People like six-year-old Ted and his bear Rufus, who raised £80k for the hospital where he had heart surgery, because the telly there didn’t work and he wanted to make other children who weren’t as lucky as him feel happy. And Alex Smith, who raised £1.2m because his nine-year-old son Harrison has muscular dystrophy – not that that stopped the two of them completing an Ironman triathlon together, Harrison being pulled and pushed around in boat and buggy.
Charities and charity, it turns out, are two completely different things. Charities as organisations have done themselves no favours, becoming the focus of the story, rather than offering themselves as the chosen and trusted vehicles for people’s charity. And they’ve done themselves no favours by distancing themselves from a word they think is out-dated and doesn’t describe them. Instead, we must be the voluntary, non-profit or even third sector, phrases that satisfy our self-importance but drive the wedge with supporters deeper.
We’ve lost sight of what matters to people – which certainly is not how we describe ourselves. People want to know their support, financial or otherwise, makes a difference to the causes they care about and are motivated to help change. People ask questions about where the money goes, about salaries, admin, fundraising and so on, when they can’t see clearly enough that difference being made.
Some might quibble about the unfair way donations get spread about, that they don’t follow effectiveness or impact, that big national charities take the oxygen from local ones. But charity is reassuringly democratic. Money flows to the causes people care about; the question of "need" is one of subjective judgement and personal concern. There is no absolute, no hierarchy of need, no right to exist. Some might rail about there being too many charities, but who’s to judge? The vast majority are small local charities, and they each exist because people want them to and are prepared to support them. Big charities work on the big issues that a lot of people care about. You can’t argue with that. Without support, any charity will wither.
One way out of these dark woods is to stop talking to people about ourselves. Charity is about people making a difference to the problems in the world they care about and want to help solve. Charities just help them do that. So let’s reclaim the C word – it’s what everyone else uses – polish it up for the 21st century, and get the story straight.
Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington