Opinion: Steer clear of sweet and sticky things

Peter Cardy

Part of my Easter reading was Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, an entertaining demolition of every idea he doesn't like since the Enlightenment. I suspect that if he'd been around in the Enlightenment he wouldn't have liked that either. He is such a grouch he makes me feel like one of those sunbeams I used to sing about in Sunday school.

One matter (of many) on which I found myself agreeing with him is the 'stakeholder' label, which for a time was spray-painted over government, the public sector and commerce, like 'community' once was. It was there to legitimise something doubtful that vested interest needed to sweeten, creating the illusion that it somehow conferred rights or equity on the enterprise in question.

Such is the affinity of the sector for sweet and sticky things that it took up the idea with gusto, and did not drop it as the Government did when it realised its origins were Keynesian, via Will Hutton. I continue to hear it used in many quarters to suggest that charities have an equal obligation to many groups.

Whatever happened to the notion of the charity beneficiary? When I was a lad, life was rather simple: charities had one set of obligations that overrode all others - to their beneficiaries, as defined in their governing instrument. True, people joining the paid staff or looking in from outside were often beguiled into thinking that because a charity was there to be good to some people, it was there to be good to everyone that came into contact with it.

Disillusion can set in when that turns out not to be so, or when it becomes clear that powerful motivation for a good cause means a certain disregard for other motivations. But in my view, the idea that the beneficiary comes first is at the heart of charity. There may be several constituencies or interests to be taken into account, but when the chips are down only one set of interests should prevail.

This helps to simplify some otherwise difficult decisions. An example close to home is that of defined benefit pensions, now considered unaffordable in much of business and industry (though not yet in the public sector).

If they have not taken action to limit these liabilities, what will today's trustees or their successors tell the beneficiaries ten years on, if it turns out that the first and largest call on funds is not for the sick or starving, the bereft or dispossessed, but for former staff?

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief.

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