The Fundraising Standards Board report into the circumstances of Olive Cooke’s death—published yesterday—makes sobering reading, and again raises the same tricky questions about the tactics used to raise money for good causes that the sector has been grappling with in recent months.
For those in the sector who simply dismiss this as a dastardly media plot, the Etherington Review into fundraising self-regulation acknowledges: ‘It was widely reported to the Review (not only by the regulatory bodies but also by charities) that there is a current disconnect between ethos and values of some charities and their fundraising practices.’
So where do we go from here? Well, the regulatory response is set, and ministers are clear that if the sector fails to police itself adequately then statutory regulation will be imposed upon it.
The ‘Gran Test’
The Care Quality Commission uses a model called the ‘Mum Test’, where inspectors ask ‘would I be happy with the level of care if it were my mum receiving this service?’. Maybe fundraisers should adopt a ‘Gran Test’ and ask themselves: ‘Would I be happy if my own grandmother was subjected to the sharper end of our fundraising practices?’
The disconnect that Etherington noted does not only affect donors. There is the related question—sometimes asked internally by charities but very rarely aired publicly—about how beneficiaries are portrayed in some fundraising campaigns. Charities expend great time and energy fighting negative stereotypes of the people they work with, and delivering interventions that help people achieve positive change and reach their potential. Yet often they use images in their fundraising campaigns that reinforce these very stereotypes, portraying beneficiaries as needy victims, unable to do anything or achieve anything in their lives.
As a trustee of a homelessness charity I felt this acutely in the run-up to Christmas. Everywhere I looked were miserable, disempowering images of people experiencing homelessness, despite the fact that the cause the money was being raised for was to help people get control of their lives, find a stable roof over their head, and get into meaningful employment.
There are so many positive stories to tell, yet too many fundraising campaigns choose to portray someone at the absolute worst point of their life, rather than show the positive changes they’ve been able to make with the support of the charity.
This is true in other sectors: NPC has said something similar about how older people are portrayed and organisations like Bond deserves kudos for trying to challenge this in the field of international development through their Date Aid campaign. It would be good to see this adopted more widely. Perhaps charities should start asking, too, how they’d feel if a good friend was featured looking tragic and distressed in their fundraising campaigns—a ‘best friend’ test, perhaps?
It’s a matter of trust
It’s not yet clear just how the practices reviewed in the FRSB report have affected public trust. We’ll await the Charity Commission’s bi-annual research with interest. But polling that predates the Olive Cooke case, including by NPC and Ipsos MORI, shows that charities can’t take public trust in charities for granted.
Trust is a precious commodity. For charities, it is absolutely crucial to maintain their individual reputation, as well as the sector’s, in order to fundraise effectively and to recruit volunteers. We only need to take a look at how trust in big institutions—banks, politics, and the media—has been eroded in recent years too see that once lost, trust is almost impossible to get back.
We’ll be discussing the issue of charities and public trust at our breakfast event on 15 April 2016. For more information and to register, visit the event page.