After every domestic disaster myriad organisations step up to the mark, from national bodies to local community groups, faith groups, businesses, schools and others who get stuck in. Some focus on provisions, others donate pairs of hands. But many want to raise funds, and raise them fast to help people in desperate need.
After the terrible events of the Grenfell Tower fire, as in the Manchester and London terrorist attacks, the response from organisations, faith groups and individuals to the needs of those who were affected and made homeless was remarkable.
But a lot of appeals have also been set up: some by charities, which are regulated, and some by individuals and others, which are not. This is not in any way to criticise people who want to raise funds, but we have to ask how all of this money can be accounted for and used properly. One appeal by a local teacher had raised more than £800,000 on JustGiving by the day after the Grenfell Tower fire.
The use of social media has made this an even more pressing issue. Anyone can launch a fundraising page within seconds, and anyone can tweet links to it and share it on Facebook.
But the main question the sector should be asking itself is whether there could be a more efficient and safe way to raise funds in an emergency in 2017. And how can we make sure money doesn’t go missing, isn’t used poorly or, worse still, isn’t stolen by fraudsters?
There is a very simple potential solution because there is already a comparable model. We have a system to do this when an international disaster strikes, along with the apparatus to publicise it.
The Disasters Emergency Committee ensures that a joint fundraising appeal between the major aid agencies is launched quickly after any international disaster, with built-in PR and advertising, and can ensure the funds are appropriately divided among the charities according to their capabilities on the ground. Charities have to show how they will spend the money, which is also important.
What we need is a Domestic DEC.
In local emergencies such as the Grenfell Tower fire, we need to know that an emergency appeal can be launched within minutes and get much-needed funds not just to larger charities but also, more importantly, to the smallest and most local of charities. We have to act smarter and quicker. Having a permanent Domestic DEC secretariat would mean an appeal could be launched, with a dedicated phone line and website, and funds would flow through a central point for distribution to a wide range of local charities as soon as possible.
This is about how the public’s generosity can be harnessed quickly and effectively to ensure funds are put to best use. But it is also about public trust and confidence. With more scrutiny of charities than ever, people need to know that when they respond to an immediate need the money they give is used wisely.
This will need a cross-sector discussion between the Charity Commission, umbrella bodies and charities that often to respond to such emergencies. But unlike the DEC model it cannot be at the exclusion of the small, local organisations.
The emergency services prepare so that they are ready to respond to terrible situations, and change their practices accordingly. It’s time the charity sector did too.
Sarah Miller is the former head of press and public affairs at the Charity Commission and is now a freelance consultant