Peter Stanford: We are no longer the good news on TV

Recent events have cast charities in bad light, but the board of trustees can play a big part in shoring up the reputation of the sector, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The former newscaster Martyn Lewis, now a leading light in the third sector, famously once appealed for more "good" news. By tradition, it has been charities that provide the good news element in bulletins and newspapers, by organising nationwide fundraisers like Red Nose Day, by funding research that reduces human suffering, or even simply by demonstrating that we are not all selfish, self-seeking individuals.

But you could be forgiven of late for concluding that charities are just as malfunctioning and hypocritical as every other public institution. There have been, for example, charges of malpractice in fundraising, with high-profile cases of vulnerable elderly people being bombarded by requests from charities as a result of dubiously obtained address lists.

Then there is the long shadow still being cast by the tragic death of Bristol's Olive Cooke, the UK's longest-serving poppy seller. The allegation that she took her own life because she had been overwhelmed by begging letters from charities might not have been proven, but the suggestion rang sufficient bells with those who read it for them to decide that this explanation was essentially true.

Next up, the collapse of Kids Company was hardly an advertisement for good governance at charities; and Angelina Jolie's resignation from the board of the landmine clearance charity the Halo Trust, allegedly because two fellow trustees had been paid from its funds to do an internal review, gives the impression that those whose job it is to make sure charities are squeaky clean are little better than the politicians involved in the expenses scandal.

People give money to charities because they believe we are different – that we act out of a purer motivation. In short, that they can trust us. This catalogue of disasters threatens us with the overnight loss of our most precious asset – our good name.

So what should trustee boards be doing? Number one: trustees must never be paid. They cannot afford to give the impression they are benefiting from charity funds.

Two: charity fundraising needs a thorough overhaul of methods and ethos, and the best people to drive that are trustees. They are the custodians of a charity's good name. They must stop charity managers gambling the family silver to meet fundraising targets that trigger huge bonus payments for themselves. Leave that mucky world of bonuses to the banks.

Three: see the bigger picture. Yes, intrusive fundraising might raise millions for your vital projects and programmes, but at what greater cost? That the charity's name becomes so soiled than eventually no one wants to support you?

Trustees, just watch the news. Charities are moving from the heart-warming "and finally..." slot to the other end of programmes, down and dirty with the tales of misdeeds and miscreants. If unchecked, this will cost us dear.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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