At Work: Fundraising - Opinion - If we speak as one, the newspapers have to listen

The Scottish fundraising scandal of 2003 damaged the whole sector, and the media was considered partly to blame. Fiona Duncan is a consultant.

She led the Giving Scotland campaign, which helped Scottish charities restore their reputation

Tony Freeman - the man who in 2003 was responsible for Scotland's biggest fundraising scandal and who triggered the media barrage that led to a significant breakdown in public confidence - is at last being sentenced (Third Sector, 4 October).

Freeman has admitted that, days before his professional fundraising firm went into liquidation, he diverted £450,000 into a Mediterranean bank account to keep it from creditors.

Media fervour

There are many lessons to be learned from the Freeman case. One of the most important is that a charity's greatest asset - its reputation - is so often affected by people or factors beyond its control.

In this case, one of the charities involved did itself no favours by appointing staff from Freeman's company to its trustee board, who then signed a contract with their own company to carry out all the fundraising.

But the reputation of charities in Scotland - which, like charities' reputations everywhere, are fragile at the best of times - didn't suffer only because of people like Tony Freeman.

Whatever Freeman's sentence, I just hope the media greets the news of it with the same fervour that they greeted the original mess he left in his wake.

Consider the two 'scandals' that afflicted Scottish charities in 2003 and were treated in exactly the same way by the media. Were the media really unable to distinguish between Freeman's theft and the incompetence and poor governance at the children's cancer charity Moonbeams?

The media could have distinguished between them, but its publications chose not to, because it suits the media's holier-than-thou perspective to bring down people who are supposed to be better than the rest of us, but in reality are not. Maybe this is why the media so often seems to salivate at the prospect of a fresh charity scandal.

Talking loud

Charities need to be robust and open to scrutiny. And what I learned from my time with Giving Scotland - which was launched in 2002 to boost public confidence in Scottish charities after the scandals - is that if charities can speak loudly enough with a clear message and a single voice, then the media will have no choice but to listen.

As the organisation charged with building trust and confidence in fundraising, I hope this is a function the Fundraising Standards Board will take on.

The FSB has a fantastic opportunity not only to promote best practice within the sector, but also to proactively promote best practice and speak with the single strong voice that defends the collective reputation of fundraisers to a hostile media.

5 MORE THINGS...

Tony Freeman's fundraising company, Solutions RMC, raised £13m for two charities in Scotland and Manchester by selling lottery tickets. Only £1.5m was spent on charitable purposes, while Solutions RMC took almost 60 per cent of the cash (£8m) in commission. The situation was uncovered in 2003.

Moonbeams, a Scottish children's charity, was investigated for financial mismanagement in October 2003. Out of a profit of £185,000, it had spent £71,000 on its charitable purpose.

The Daily Record urged readers not to give to charities because "you could be funding some scumbag's holiday place".

The Giving Scotland campaign was formed by 14 Scottish charities, the SCVO and the Institute of Fundraising in the wake of the scandals. A poll in The Herald had shown that 52 per cent of Scots were less likely to give to charity because of the scandal.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator passed £1.5m of the assets of Breast Cancer Research (Scotland), which Freeman had raised funds for, to the University of Dundee's breast cancer research centre in July 2006.

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