THINKPIECE: Does giving to a charity cost you too much?

Jon Fitzmaurice, co-founder of Agents For Change and a former trustee of NCVO and Shelter

There's a bloke on Lordship Lane in south London who is often begging for money. He's the only beggar I've seen get up and use the cash point and then make a call on his mobile. But he's yet to catch up with the person 20 yards away who asks me to sign a direct debit form.

We've all been propositioned by enthusiastic tabard-clad young people asking for money. However, nfpSynergy's recent survey not only showed that the public finds street fundraising increasingly irritating, but also that many object to the amount of money actually being spent on it.

Fundraising is, and probably always has been, an uneven playing field.

However, not only are larger charities able to raise more money with their professional fundraisers, but many seem to be caught up in developing themselves as brands, capable of attracting evermore income. Meanwhile, smaller charities can't compete as the stakes rise and thus run the risk of being eclipsed by their larger colleagues. But isn't bigger better?

The Cabinet Office chose Private Action, Public Gain as the title of its recent review of charities under the Strategy Unit. This attempts to pin down the "thread" that runs through charitable activity - individuals acting for community benefit. This is evident in smaller charities but larger charities are more strategic, run income-led projects and spend more and more on professional fundraising.

And there's a danger that fundraising can distort the agenda. Shelter, for instance, invites donors to contact "customer services", but where does that leave the homeless? What would people signing up on the street say if they knew that their first year of payments went to the company?

The Strategy Unit has suggested some changes: a new body to develop self-regulation through a voluntary code of practice, new licensing arrangements for street collections and a standard information return. But is this enough? Should there be an FSA-style requirement to disclose to each donor any commission earned?

What's clear is that the public is concerned about value for money. Charities, especially the larger ones, need to address this, otherwise more people may opt to "give direct" or hang onto their cash.

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