Shock, horror! What surprised us in 2008

Tristan Donovan looks back at Atlas from Gladiators and other weird stories

Sam Bond AKA Atlas: pic courtesy of Matt Holyoak/Sky One
Sam Bond AKA Atlas: pic courtesy of Matt Holyoak/Sky One

It's been a year of public benefit test rows, darkening economic skies, mergers, Olympic funding battles and conflicting reports measuring the public's trust in charities. But what were the stories we didn't expect this year? Tristan Donovan looks back at 2008.

1. Post once, pay twice

Think getting donors to put a stamp on a Freepost envelope will save your charity money? Think again. Back in June, Third Sector discovered that the Royal Mail's automated sorting system was unable to spot stamps put on Freepost envelopes, meaning donors and charities were both paying for the same letter. Royal Mail promised to refund charities that lost out, but the sector was not impressed. Alison Holland (above), finance director of St Giles Hospice in Derbyshire, said the charity had put a message on its envelopes telling donors to cross out the word 'Freepost' if they used a stamp. Calls for a Freepost boycott didn't catch on, though.

2. Volunteer power

A rebellion by volunteers at York Citizens Advice Bureau hit the headlines in July. The volunteers staged a walkout after the 'sacking' of a colleague accused of bullying who they felt had not been given a fair hearing. By late July, 28 volunteer advisers had resigned, sparking a wider debate about volunteer rights.National umbrella body Citizens Advice commissioned a review of the incident by John Stoker, the former chief charity commissioner. In October, Stoker's report concluded that York CAB had suffered from a "failure of management" and called on it to apologise to the volunteers. The criticism prompted the resignations of director Chris Hailey-Norris and nine of the bureau's 10 trustees. The victorious volunteers then returned to the bureau.

3. Shaw Trust's Australian ding-dong

For the first half of 2008, the Shaw Trust was on a roll, scooping up record numbers of government contracts and drawing up plans to expand into Australia. "Few charities have been as successful at winning contracts," Third Sector noted in its 23 July edition. But the trust's antipodean dreams quickly turned sour. Ian Charlesworth, its managing director, was ousted after objecting to the Australian venture. He responded by asking the Charity Commission to probe the trust's financial management and governance, and by filing a grievance against its chairman and director-general. By October, chief finance officer Julie Currin had resigned after expressing her own concerns about the Australian plans, which the trust then abandoned, blaming the economic slump.

4. The Catz Club saga

A dodgy donation, a political bun-fight, a charity in hot water and secrecy about the use of public money: the Catz Club saga had it all. The childcare charity ran into trouble when Greg Clark, then shadow charities minister, discovered it had donated £7,500 to the Labour Party, breaching charity rules. It then emerged that the Charity Commission had been informally looking into Catz Club's financial situation for some time. Next, Futurebuilders England got caught up in the row for signing a confidentiality agreement when it wrote off part of a £1.8m loan to Catz Club. By the end of October, Futurebuilders was promising no more confidentiality deals and Catz Club had revealed details of its loan settlement.

5. Rats

Let's be honest, rats have always had a bit of an image problem. So would you if you had a scaly tail, helped to spread the Black Death and appeared repeatedly in horror films. But in September, Belgian charity Apopo gave the rodents a rare PR boost when it scooped a £500,000 Skoll Award for Social Enterprise for training rats to sniff out landmines in Africa.

The year's five most read stories on Third Sector's website

1. Fundraiser fired and reported for having three jobs (3 September) Fundraiser Andrew Coutts, who worked from his home in south Wales, got the boot from his British Polio Fellowship job after it discovered he also worked full-time for two other charities.

2. Shock exit of Shaw Trust managing director (6 August) The Shaw Trust stunned the sector when it announced it had put managing director Ian Charlesworth on 'gardening leave' ahead of his exit (see 3, above).

3. Charities stand to lose millions in Icelandic crisis (9 October) The collapse of Iceland's banking system took with it as much as £200m of charity savings.

4. Waitrose millions to benefit local charities (22 July) The supermarket chain announced plans to hand out £28.8m to nearly 7,000 community projects during the next 12 months. Staff in each of its stores pick three projects each month and customers choose between them.

5. Futurebuilders asked to explain missing details (24 September) Shadow charities minister Greg Clark asked Futurebuilders to explain why it deleted all references on its website to the £1.8m loan and £200,000 grant it gave Catz Club (see 4, right).

- Weirder still ...

Shop staff shocked by dog skeleton donation

Staff at St Barnabas Hospice's charity shop in Lincoln got a shock when a mystery donor left them a 2,000-year-old dog skeleton from Roman times. "Charities are used to getting all sorts of weird things, but you don't really expect a skeleton," said David Moir, head of policy and public affairs at the Association of Charity Shops.

- Mr Testicles survives £350 charity rebrand

Male Cancer Awareness Campaign showed how to rein in spending during the credit crunch by rebranding for £350. The charity's mascot, Mr Testicles, remained untouched.

- Macmillan coffee: not the cat's whiskers

It sounded like an I'm a Celebrity-style bush tucker trial, but John Lewis wasn't joking when, to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, it put on sale £50 bags of coffee made from beans eaten and later passed out by Indonesian cats. Marco Zacharia, the store's head of catering, said the coffee was "a remarkable experience".

- RNLI's muscle man in Gladiators debut

TV game show Gladiators returned with RNLI marketing bod Sam Bond on board. The show presented Bond as gladiator Atlas, who "fights hard with dignity". Fight with dignity? Not in that outfit, you won't.

- Brennan backs moose-shooting candidate

And, finally, the sector welcomed Kevin Brennan as third sector minister. He showed ironic support for failed US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by drinking from a mug that pictured the moose-menacing Alaskan - but was it feline-flavoured coffee the minister was enjoying?



Mayfair Capital Investment Management reckons house prices are bouncing back. "There's a feeling property is starting to move again," says fund director James Thornton after the company sinks £5.3m into property.


The NCVO's UK Civil Society Almanac 2008 reveals that 94 per cent of small charities cut spending on fundraising and publicity in the previous 12 months.


Biman Mittra, finance director of children's charity Coram, says the economic crisis is "a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make money if you invest now".


The British Market Research Bureau reports that the number of adults giving more than £5 a year has reached a three-year low.


Charity investments plunged 8.4 per cent in the first six months of 2008, reports financial analyst WM Company.


A Charities Aid Foundation poll finds a third of charities are poised to make job cuts because of the slowing economy.


The Icelandic bank collapse leaves charities out of pocket by as much as £200m. The glass is "half-empty and getting emptier" warns Charles Nall, chair of the Charity Finance Directors' Group.


Chief executives body Acevo calls for a £500m government bail-out for charities. Chancellor Alistair Darling responds with a Pre-Budget Report light on specific help for charities.


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