Opinion: Hot Issue - Should charities take account of the ethics of potential partners?

Charities have been lining up to become BAE Systems' charity of the year partner, saying that they don't mind the company makes arms and is being investigated for alleged fraudulent practices.

YES - Dax Lovegrove, company relations manager, WWF-UK

It is imperative that we avoid conflicts of interest and ensure there are acceptable ethical commitments. WWF-UK invests heavily in vetting potential partners, especially when dealing with multinational corporations.

If there are clashes between a company's commitments and our work, then by entering into a partnership with them we would be helping to perpetuate the very things we are working against. For example, it would not be in our climate change team's interests for us to endorse a coal-based power supplier, which has little interest in renewable energy. As well as avoiding conflicts of interest, we also look at other areas of general ethics.

We won't, for example, accept funds from an organisation whose core business is associated with armaments.

But we do not rule out engagements with companies with a less than acceptable environmental record. WWF-UK is about harnessing the support of business for our work, and there are instances where gains can be made by working together without having to enter into a formal partnership, accepting funds or showing public support. It is only by changing the practices of companies that we can make gains for the environment.

YES - Edward Hodgkins, head of corporate fundraising, Macmillan Cancer Relief

When charities are working with businesses, the relationship is about more than just fundraising. There are many positive aspects to a corporate tie-up.

They do indeed raise money, but they can also enhance the charity's reputation, brand and profile if things go well. The opposite is the case if things go wrong. Before embarking on a corporate relationship, charities must check to make sure that the partner is appropriate and has the right fit, that there are no conflicts of interests, and that a relationship with one corporate donor is not going to upset the thousands of others that give to the cause.

It is often said that a reputation can take a long time to build but can be lost in a moment if a mistake is made. This is easy when it's a black and white issue - cigarettes and cancer are an absolute no-go area.

But the grey areas can be much harder and it's worth spending time checking it out.

This may sound tough and it may seem easy for larger charities to pick and choose, but time spent identifying possible glitches can also identify potential opportunities with a partner organisation.

YES - Jean Collingwood, chief executive, The Ingenious Group

Without clear, agree, written ethical policies, deciding on suitable partners is still largely an issue of perception.

Years ago, as a fundraising director, I pleaded with trustees that we should accept support from a potential partner, regardless of its ethics. I believed it was for the greater good, and that by doing so we could help more people. I justified this with my naive belief that any company could ultimately be viewed as good or bad.

Today, I no longer believe this. We live in a world where ethics really matter. Accepting "grey funds" can have a huge negative impact on a charity, and these can outlast and outweigh any short-term or financial gains.

Such a partnership reduces our ability to fundraise from the very people we represent, because they will no longer trust our judgment or motives.

It also risks putting off supporters who expect us to to take a lead on ethics and who give accordingly. It reduces brand values for other corporate partners, which find themselves tarred with the same brush, and which inevitably will reduce their support in future.

In short, it devalues us and what we stand for and, worse still, illuminates what we don't.

YES - Mike Hodgson, director of public affairs, RSPB

The RSPB believes that effective partnerships can accelerate the delivery of conservation objectives. We are enthusiastic about partnerships that make conservation and business sense, and are involved in numerous alliances from international to local level.

Ethical stance is one of the factors we take into account when assessing a potential partnership, but it is not the sole determinate. We expect partners to have ethical positions compatible with our own, and do not enter into partnerships with organisations whose activities are incompatible with our conservation objectives. While ethical considerations are important, they are open to interpretation, so we consider each case on its merits.

On the corporate side, we believe it is more productive to nurture good practice in commercial organisations than to adopt a 'no relationship' policy. We have criteria for checking the suitability of commercial relationships, and all companies that we are contemplating a partnership with are checked to ensure they are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously, are aware of any potentially damaging activities, and are doing enough to warrant RSPB support or endorsement.

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