Russell Hargrave: Neet Feet scandal is proof that mums know best

The Neet Feet inquiry shows charities haven't learned that working with the wrong kinds of partner can be disastrous for their reputations, writes the PR manager

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

Choose your friends carefully, my mother always told me. Spend your time with the wrong people and they will get you into trouble.

This is good advice for misbehaving boys, but also, it turns out, for those of us who communicate for a living.

Charities are having to defend themselves yet again because they have been caught hanging out with a bad crowd. A sector that should be telling proactive stories about its life-changing work is instead trying to explain how it got itself into another mess.

The culprit this time is an outfit called Neet Feet. It had been contracted to raise money by eight charities: Save the Children, Unicef, RNIB, Action for Children, Smile Train, the Children’s Trust, World Animal Protection and Hft.

The Sun, after sending a journalist undercover for six weeks, made a series of allegations about the behaviour of the company's fundraisers. These were upheld last week by the new Fundraising Regulator.

It is a serious rap sheet. Donations were accepted from vulnerable people, some of whom were misled and pressured by fundraisers. Fundraisers were sometimes under the influence of drink or drugs, made derogatory remarks about the public and didn't do enough to make sure donors were over 18.

Sadly, the instinct of Neet Feet was to cast around for others to blame. It was a classic case of blaming the messenger rather than listening to the message.

Its formal statement conceded, albeit in the passive voice, that "clearly there were some problems".

But one director, talking to Third Sector, lashed out at The Sun for running a story that was "just a load of nonsense, all of it". (Far from being "nonsense", it was found by the Fundraising Regulator that all the allegations were supported by the evidence.)

The same director then said that the reporter wouldn’t have investigated if a rival fundraising company hadn’t suggested it. How this is relevant to what the reporter found is anyone's guess.

The investigation was disastrous for Neet Feet, which went into liquidation, but it dragged the charities into trouble too.

Seven of the eight – all except the Children's Trust were told off by the regulator for not keeping a close enough eye on the way their contracts were fulfilled. Comms staff at most were dispatched to draft apologetic statements.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. There has been a renewed focus lately on how collaboration and positive story-telling will get the charity sector through its current problems.

One step in the right direction is NCVO’s Constructive Voices programme. Another comes with the appointment of Vicky Browning to head Acevo in the new year. Appointing a communications expert and former publisher to run one of the sector's most influential bodies is a positive sign.

However, problems will persist if, months from now, we are still discussing bad headlines. Charities must show they have learned their lesson.

My mum would forgive me an occasional mistake. But if I kept getting into trouble, her patience wore thin very quickly.

Russell Hargrave is the press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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