News analysis: Partnership - or corporate advert?

When Afghanaid was offered a deal with a large health trust, alarm bells rang. Stephen Cook reports.

A few weeks ago, a saleswoman from Health Care Communications telephoned the head of fundraising at Afghanaid and told her that a health trust with 28,000 staff wanted to set up a partnership with a small international charity.

Adele Bird was told that if Afghanaid was selected, staff at the trust would get an email from their chief executive encouraging them to support the partnership, there would be posters about the charity in staffrooms and staff would even be encouraged to donate through payroll giving.

The price of this would be £6,000 for an advertising 'button' on the intranet directory that HCC was providing free to the trust. This would be a hyperlink to the charity's website.

Bird did not want to pass up the prospect of a potentially lucrative partnership with a big organisation. So she agreed to sign up and was subsequently told that Afghanaid had been selected by the trust.

Unanswered questions

But she began to feel uneasy about the offer because she felt her detailed queries about some aspects of the partnership were not being answered properly.

When she was asked to supply only 25 words about the charity for emails and posters, she began to suspect that the only emails from the chief executive would be routine ones introducing the intranet site to the staff and mentioning briefly the names of all the advertisers, including Afghanaid, and that the posters would be in the same vein.

She raised her concerns with HCC. "Since being 'sold' the whole concept, everything leads me to believe that I am being treated as another corporate advert instead of a charity partner," she wrote.

At this point she also read an anonymous message on the Institute of Fundraising's trust and statutory special interest group e-forum and her anxiety levels rose further.

The message told how another charity had been interested in a proposal from HCC that had led it to believe the employees of a large hospital would be encouraged to donate £10 each a month. A possible income of £360,000 a year was in view.

The contributor wrote: "That's when I was told we would have to pay £6,000 up front to sponsor a telephone directory for the hospital because the hospital could not be seen to be supporting one charity over another.

At this point, alarm bells started ringing.

"Why would a hospital that claimed to be looking for a charity not want to be seen to be supporting them directly? And why would they go through another company to set up such a scheme?" The writer then described contacting the hospital and finding that HCC's account did not fully square with the facts.

Bird then phoned the communications manager at the health trust concerned.

He told her that there was no agreement for HCC to set up a partnership between the trust and a charity, and that the trust would never recommend a particular charity to staff; she began comparing notes with other charities.

When Third Sector made inquiries, the trust's communications manager and other charities confirmed the position. Cathryn Oldman, head of fundraising and communications at homelessness charity Broadway, was also approached by HCC, but decided not to proceed. "You're led to believe you'll be the chosen, sponsored charity, which is very attractive," she says. "But as it goes on you start to wonder if there are any benefits for your charity."

David Ould, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: "They were suggesting something that seemed like a remarkably good deal, but when push came to shove they did not have the agreement with the NHS trust that they'd said they had."

Mike Cunningham, managing director of HCC, says the confusion with Afghanaid occurred in early negotiations. "During these initial talks, the future of the relationship with the trust was misinterpreted by our representative - a matter that Afghanaid has brought to our attention," he said. "It believed the deal to be an exclusive arrangement, and HCC's representative did not clarify this point.

"This was not HCC's intention. A thorough web demonstration took place to outline the proposed activities and services. This informs clients of what to expect and clarifies any issues they may have before signing an agreement. HCC has not intentionally misled any charities as to the marketing activities available. However, there are at least two, including Afghanaid, that have expressed that concern. We have contacted all parties to clarify projects and thereby ensure a good future relationship."

- See Editorial, page 22.

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