Matthew Sherrington: Marching for the cause of charity overheads is not likely to generate public sympathy

It's a mistake to try to turn administration of charities into a good-news story, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington

If the US fundraiser and author Dan Pallotta manages to pull it off – and, given his track record, there's no reason to think he won't – there will be a three-day march next June from Maine to Massachusetts to raise money for the Charity Defense Council, which wants a fighting fund for public advertising that would extol the virtue of charity overheads, and for legal challenges.

Much as I support Pallotta's message about charity administration – in sentiment if not liberalised-market detail – and enjoy his fervour in challenging it as a measure of charity effectiveness, I can't help feeling uneasy about this proposed march. On the one hand, public understanding of how charities operate is not as deep as we would like; but on the other, it's hardly the most pressing threat.

Governments don't seem to like the scrutiny to which they are exposed in a world made more and more participative by ever-increasing access to information. Their response has been to use regulation to clamp down on charities speaking out. In Canada and the US, financial audits are being used to restrict the activities of not-for-profits. It's happening in Australia too. In the UK, we have the half-baked lobbying act. India recently declared that Greenpeace was a threat to national security because it campaigned about clean energy. These are countries where democracy supposedly thrives.

The proposed PR campaign for the march will be carried out by Pallota's own agency, Advertising for Humanity, which has donated the march website and created the Charity Defense Council's "I'm an Overhead" poster.

Pallotta's emphasis on admin is similarly self-serving, whatever its merits. He faced controversy a decade ago about the percentage that his company took out of the three-day events he pioneered, and he's been making the case for looking at net income rather than fundraising ratios ever since. His case for unfettered salaries for chief executives isn't one you hear charity leaders making very often.

There's a danger that Pallotta's sensible message about admin will backfire. Making a virtue of overheads does not seem to me the way to persuade people. Shouting "I am overhead" in the confines of a fundraisers' conference hall is one thing; it is quite another to run a fundraising event that, masquerading as the sector's freedom march, takes that message on the road. I can't imagine there will be much public sympathy for marching charity workers chanting "I am overhead". I can imagine the media angle: "Militant charity workers take time out from doing good to march for their pay."

The first rule of managing a negative story is to minimise it, not to argue the toss from the rooftops. It's a mistake to try to turn admin into a good-news story; it's not what we want anyone to be worrying about. Charities have a hard enough time talking up the impact they make. Explain admin, yes; but we need to be better at making the case about the impact we have. We need to stand up and defend the sector, but there are more important issues to march for than admin.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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