Susannah Birkwood: Fundraising critics keep chugging away... so watch out

Events this week show that it is no longer acceptable for charities not to be transparent about the cost of fundraising, writes our reporter

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood

It’s been a tough old week for fundraising. First, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme sends a couple of undercover reporters to dish dirt on the internal goings-on at two of the country’s best-known fundraising agencies. Then a disgruntled volunteer fundraiser launches a tirade about "chugging", as he persistently calls it, claiming that paid street fundraisers are having a negative impact on those who collect money for charity for free.

It hasn’t just been this week, of course. The Sunday Telegraph went undercover at Tag Campaigns in June 2012, and the BBC’s Newsnight did a bit of a hatchet job on Help for Heroes a couple of months later. Add to that the Panorama exposé on where Comic Relief invests its money last December, and it’s clear that it’s been open season on the sector for a couple of years now.

Some of these attempts to blacken the name of fundraising look slightly desperate. This is most evident in the so-called "report" sent out by UK Charities Aid last week. Peter Quinn, chair of this volunteer fundraising group active in north west England, has emailed every MP and council in the country to share valuable stats such as "90 to 97 per cent of the population are against chugging", which he told me comes from a highly reliable source – namely, "surveys done by media like The Bolton News".

Quinn also made the laughable claim that street fundraising has "made millionaires out of so many" and urges readers to view this BBC report, produced four years ago, about the fees charged to charities by fundraising agencies. His motive? His outfit, UK Charities Aid, has had a hard time fundraising and believes things would be easier if chuggers were no more. His main gripe is that paying people to do the work means less money goes to the cause.

While Dispatches would no doubt resent being compared to a little-known volunteering group on a self-serving crusade against street fundraising, it embarked on its own crusade on Monday night without a huge amount more gravitas. Yes, it made a couple of disquieting observations about the practices at NTT Fundraising and Pell & Bales – that fundraisers were put under pressure to meet daily targets, for example, and that donors weren’t told the agency staff were being paid until after they’d made a decision to donate – but there was nothing especially hard-hitting about the documentary. While NTT did say it was OK to call back a woman with a terminally ill daughter, who’s to know whether that woman might not want that call in six months time, when leaving a legacy to the charity on behalf of her child might be the most empowering option available to her?

Despite the flimsiness of the criticisms levelled by both these attacks, they do carry a message for the sector. They are a useful reminder that everything charities do must be with the utmost care and circumspection these days. It’s no longer acceptable for charities – and the agencies they hire – to fail to be transparent about the cost of fundraising, regardless of how the guidelines on the subject may or may not be worded.

It’s also no longer OK for them to choose whether or not they want their fundraising methods to be regulated. Great Ormond St Hospital – on whose behalf NTT was fundraising during the Dispatches investigation – stands out among the top 50 fundraising charities for not being a member of the Fundraising Standards Board. Monday’s programme suggests why that isn’t good enough.

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog


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