Review of the year: Recession, rain and a brain campaign

From Kevin Brennan to brains, from Red Nose Day to Heyday and from recession to research into campaigning, it's been another eventful year in the sector. Tristan Donovan looks back at 2009

Parkinson's Disease Society brain donor campaign
Parkinson's Disease Society brain donor campaign

THE HIGHS ...

The Government might have spent most of the year bailing out banks and printing money in a bid to salvage something from the wreckage of the bursting credit bubble, but there was some good news during 2009.

A record-breaking Red Nose Day, for starters. Its appeal, launched in March, attracted £59.2m of donations: not quite enough to bail out a bank, but noticeably more than went into the third sector action plan (see The recession, below).

There were further good tidings on the fundraising front when mobile phone operators agreed to ditch VAT charges on donations made by text message. And the sector welcomed the news by promising to step up its campaign to reduce operator tariffs.

The sector scored another financial victory when it killed the 'rain tax' - changes to water bills that would have meant charities being charged the same as businesses for the amount of surface rainwater running off their premises.

The campaign brought together archbishops, scouts and sports clubs, prompting politicians to act. "If a politician had to pick three organisations to avoid confrontation with, it would probably be the church, the scouts and sports clubs," Labour MP Stephen Pound pointed out.

... AND THE LOWS

Direct mail continued to annoy people during 2009. In May, the Fundraising Standards Board revealed that, of the 26,000 complaints it received in 2008, 19,608 concerned direct mail.

Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, said it was a tiny number of complaints, given the 500 million items of charity direct mail sent out in the year. But he estimated that one complaint to the FRSB represented the view of 100 people, which would make the number equivalent to a not-so-tiny 1,960,800 complaints.

The direct mail debate got more heated in the autumn, when the Institute of Fundraising began challenging non-member charities whose mail breached its code of conduct. Five of the 16 charities, it seems, promptly told the institute where to stick its code of conduct.

The Government's volunteer brokerage scheme also ran into trouble as volunteering centres accused the initiative of being rushed and criticised payment levels and the way it was implemented.

Age Concern England, meanwhile, shut down its troubled membership scheme Heyday, which had lost the charity and its trading subsidiary Acent £22m. Sir Christopher Kelly, asked by the charity to investigate Heyday, later described the failed venture as a "classic case study of what not to do if you want an organisation to succeed".

THE PICTURE

Ugh! It's a brain, and a somewhat gooey one at that. This photograph of a rubber-gloved Jane Asher and a sample of the grey matter might have been unappetising, but it was part of a Parkinson's Disease Society campaign that was one of the year's charity success stories.

To mark Parkinson's Awareness Week 2009, the society came up with the Brain Donor Appeal in the hope of getting 1,000 more people to give their brains to science - but only after they've died, boom, boom ((c) all newspapers, as Private Eye would put it).

With support from Asher and Newsnight's politician-torturer-in-chief Jeremy Paxman, the campaign netted the charity media coverage worth the estimated equivalent of £4m of paid-for advertising.

Within nine weeks it also persuaded more than 1,200 people to agree to donate their brains. No wonder the distinguised judges of the Third Sector Excellence Awards decided to name it the best communications campaign.

THE DEBATES THAT REFUSED TO DIE

They might get a bit of attention, but some issues never seem to do anything more than tread water.

Among them was the charity VAT campaign saga. Did you know it has been 30 years since the campaign started, even though it feels more like 60?

Another constant headline-maker was the battle between private schools and the Charity Commission over public benefit - but at least that one moved on a bit with the release of the first public benefit assessments.

And who could forget the barrage of claims and counter-claims that typified the debates about clothing collections - both real and bogus - that threatened to take over the Third Sector letters page on several occasions this year?

 

HELLO

* The merged Age Concern and Help the Aged asserted its new name would not be Age UK - then decided in November that it would after all (but not until next spring).

* Angela Smith became the 10th third sector minister since 1997. She replaced Kevin Brennan, who is remembered for having the shortest tenure of any third sector minister.

* To general acclaim, the Government announced in April it would be handing out £750,000 to support innovative campaigning by the sector.

GOODBYE

* After nearly three years of charity baiting, Intelligent Giving, the widely disliked donor advice website, fizzled away to become a low-key arm of New Philanthrophy Capital.

* The Third Sector Leadership Centre bit the dust after disputes between Acevo and the NCVO about its future prompted Capacitybuilders to refuse the funds needed to keep it open.

* To wails of disapproval, in October the Government changed its mind and shut down its £750,000 campaigning fund to support innovative campaigning by the sector.

THE RECESSION

Here's one for stat fans: 12.96 per cent of Third Sector stories in 2009 mentioned the word recession. Hang on ... that's just risen to 12.98 per cent with this feature. In short, the recession was everywhere - just like the Olympic logo, only a bit more popular.

The recession talk started early with the debut debate of Third Sector's Recession Watch Panel, a regular meeting of downturn-tracking experts. Medium-sized charities, the panel warned in the first Third Sector email bulletin of 2009, were likely to be hit hardest. Oh ... happy New Year by the way.

But measuring the impact of the recession on the sector proved tricky. Surveys about donor behaviour shed little light on the issue. One moment surveys were suggesting that charitable giving was recession-proof or doorstep fundraising was bucking the downturn trend; the next, the data told of falling legacy income or a direct debit cancellation crisis.

By the end of the year the data seemed as contradictory as at the start - but there were signs of prudence. Acevo revealed that the average pay for charity chief executives fell from £57,300 in 2008 to £57,264 in 2009. That said, the average had been creeping down from a peak of £57,640 since 2006.

Meanwhile, the Government's recession rescue effort, the third sector action plan, disappointed many. Rather optimistically, Acevo asked for half a billion. Instead, the sector got £42.5m - only to find out a few weeks later that only £40.5m was available. When you're handing out billions, who's going to miss a couple of million?

Most read on Thirdsector.co.uk in 2009

1. Charity email newsletters 'a waste of time', says Obama strategist (February) Barack Obama's digital strategist, Thomas Gensemer, berated charity emails for not being personalised.

2. Dialogue Direct Fundraising UK goes into liquidation (October) The face-to-face fundraising agency bit the dust after payment-date difficulties with HM Revenue & Customs.

3. Virgin's charity fundraising site 'will undercut JustGiving' (April) Richard Branson's new venture claimed it would do better than JustGiving by charging 72 per cent less for transactions.

4. The Big Lottery Fund unveils new funding strategy (June) The BLF said it would give 80 per cent of its funds to charities rather than the usual 60 to 70 per cent.

5. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launches social investment fund (October) The foundation announced plans to offer $400m (£252m) of loans, underwriting and investment to the sector.

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