We live in turbulent, troubled times, where those we have depended upon and trusted implicitly to act in all our best interests stand accused of taking their eye off that ball in pursuit of their own interests and passions. Much of this criticism is directed at our politicians, but for charity trustees, too, there are risks in the current climate. And nowhere are they better seen than in the debacle of the Garden Bridge, planned as a leafy adornment over the River Thames in London, but now revealed as a disaster that cost £53.3m without resulting in anything to show for all that spending.
There are many who have been accused of bearing the blame, principally central and local government politicians for handing over £43m of public money without, it is said, having followed their own rules to ensure that it was well spent. But the organisation that ran the project, the Garden Bridge Trust, was a charity, registered in January 2014 with well-known names on its trustee board including the actress Joanna Lumley and the PR guru Roland Rudd, brother of cabinet minister Amber.
According to some reports, these trustees might face legal challenges over how they discharged their responsibilities. Such matters are beyond my competence, but what does concern me more broadly is the reputational damage this sorry tale will do to all charities. The accusation I hear most often when talking to people about being involved in a charity is that we don’t spend enough of what we receive on our "cause". "Not you, of course," they add, "but look at Kids Company." How that name haunts us. Now there is another to add to the list.
Let’s be clear. Some 80 per cent of the Garden Bridge Trust’s money was from the public purse, not charitable donors. Yet that distinction will be lost on those who will casually quote its failure as a means of questioning the propriety of other charities. What they will have noted is that architects, advisers and the administrative team were all paid what, at a casual glance, look like handsome amounts, but there is now precisely nothing to show for it. "Typical of charities," I can hear them saying already, "too much process, not enough delivery."
There is, of course, a counter argument. I’ve made it a million times myself, explaining that if charities are going to spend large sums of donors’ money they must do so in a professional, planned and properly advised way. And that means that there have to be admin costs, including salaries, in order to ensure best value and contribute to a better project.
To which, in the case of the Garden Bridge Trust, would have to be appended, "and in rare cases what seemed like a good idea that just required detailed planning can be knocked off course by circumstances". In the commercial world, such "circumstances" are seen as the risks that are part and parcel of all transactions. Charities, though, are perceived as different – and it is that difference that is our strongest attraction in the public mind.
So another PR disaster for brand "charity". How could it have been avoided? Much of that will be picked over by the various politicians and parties involved in the weeks, months and probably years ahead. For the rest of us, though, as we daily approach donors and ask them to support our work, based on the trust that the word charity once carried with it, it will be a question of living with the damage done to our collective reputation.
It is not yet, as far as I can see, a crisis, but the erosion of public trust in those who print their Charity Commission registration numbers on their headed paper as a hallmark is something we should all be worried about. We live in stark and polarised times, where nuance, complexity and good intentions struggle to get an airing against a chorus of voices that insist, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that the world is black or white, right or wrong, honest or dishonest. All trustees should be on their guard. Too many more examples like the Garden Bridge Trust will make our work harder than ever to sustain in the long term.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years