Susannah Birkwood: This week's fundraising convention was a sombre affair

The UK's main annual gathering of fundraisers was overshadowed by media attacks and scolding, writes Third Sector's reporter

Susannah Birkwood
Susannah Birkwood
  • This article has been amended: see final paragraph

"I’m scared to go to the convention this year," one fundraiser said to me recently, ahead of the Institute of Fundraising convention, which was held this week. The reason, she said, was that she dreaded another scolding from the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, who had spoken sternly to fundraisers at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association's AGM last month about "indefensible" fundraising practice. She thought he was likely to do so again at the convention, the largest annual gathering of fundraisers in the UK.

As it was, the minister didn’t turn up – not because he couldn’t be bothered, as some factions in the charity sector might have thought, but because he had a prior engagement on that evening. His predecessor-but-one, Nick Hurd, attended last year and made a short, genial speech.

But there were plenty of others willing to chastise fundraisers over the three days. The most aggressive and ill-informed of these was the Daily Mail. For those outside fundraising’s inner circle – the fundraising heads of the brand-name charities, the Fundraising Standards Board and the IoF’s trustees – the welcome address by IoF chair Richard Taylor on day one was their first inkling of what was to come. "A story due to break in the media this week might help to explain why I’ve decided to remain as chair of the IoF," he said.

That night, during the IoF awards – normally a euphoric occasion of laughter and back-slapping – the story Taylor had been referring to broke. "Shame of the charity cold call sharks: Britain's biggest charities ruthlessly hounding the vulnerable and elderly for cash," screamed the front page of the Daily Mail, published online at about 10pm.

The next day, the there was a session on strengthening fundraising standards, added to the agenda in the weeks before the conference, and the scolding of fundraisers, who crowded into the large auditorium, continued. While the IoF’s Peter Lewis urged fundraisers not to "go round self-flagellating", Sarah Atkinson of the Charity Commission told delegates that the public unease about fundraising was "there, real and not just the Daily Mail".

Most of the fundraising heads of the charities featured in the Mail’s coverage the night before had stayed away – "it’s a tad hectic here, as you can imagine," one emailed me from the office. But a solemn-looking Tim Hunter, head of fundraising at Oxfam, was sitting three rows from the stage and, when the floor opened to questions, he enquired of the panellists whether the Information Commissioner had been correct in stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was all right for fundraisers to contact existing supporters even if they were registered with the Telephone Preference Service. Four of the five panellists declined to answer, while the fifth, Save the Children’s Tanya Steele, said it was not clear what the correct answer was.

"It’s so depressing," was a common refrain as people pored over the coverage on their mobile phones. But many enjoyed a lighter moment during that day’s plenary speech by Rory Sutherland of the advertising company Ogilvy, who began by talking about bees and the "waggle dance" they perform to communicate. "With tens of millions of years of bee evolution, you’d think that bee compliance officers and accountants would have come along and said ‘we need a higher level of compliance with the waggle dance in order to meet our pollen targets for quarter three'."

The second night is traditionally when the convention party is held. Last year, even the least energetic of the revellers stayed up until midnight and the more hard-core ones stayed up drinking rum until 4am. But this year several small drinks receptions were held, with the main "members party" going on only until 7pm. The IoF explanation is that it reorganised its festivities into several smaller, earlier receptions this year in order to cater better to different groups with different needs – and given the sombre mood, and the rumour (which proved true) that the Mail was planning a series of follow-up stories, it seemed apt that the celebrations were more modest this year.

On the final day, the main rebuke came from an unlikely source: the ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen. Saying she was offering the sector "a carrot and a stick", Rantzen told fundraisers off for for the fact that it took the case of Olive Cooke for them to wake up to the fact that some of them might be "harassing" and "persecuting" members of the public. She also acknowledged the important work they did and said she’d be happy to help the sector pitch a programme to the BBC, joking that it could be called "That’s Charity Life".

While it is unlikely that the Mail timed its coverage to coincide with the convention, it will have struck many as bitterly cruel that fundraisers’ beloved annual conference – seen as the one time in the year when they can get together and celebrate their collective success – was overshadowed by anxiety about the reputation of individuals, charities and the sector as a whole.

As my friend the fundraiser predicted last month, it would have been a time of reflection and introspection (and a degree of scolding) even without this week’s Mail stories about the sector – which so far total three, two of which were on the front page. But the coverage made it, for some, a time of  humiliation and embarrassment as well.

"I grieve for my colleagues and friends, senior fundraisers in the sector," Stephen Pidgeon says in his forthcoming August column for Third Sector, written during the convention. In that, he is unlikely to be alone.

  • Third Sector was initally told by the IoF that the charities minister had not been invited and that Nick Hurd had only been invited last year because an election was approaching

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