Bad news headline

Reflecting on charities’ annus horribilis

By Rob Abercrombie 30 December 2015

The charity sector is reeling, punch drunk, towards the close of 2015. The blows have just kept coming: the press’s take on the death of Olive Cooke and the fundraising house of cards collapsing; Kids Company’s predictable yet depressing demise; and simmering ideological distaste for the professionalised model of charity and for charities that campaign regularly erupting into the public domain.

This month we’ve seen almost daily bad press, a particularly notable example being the Times’ front page on how charities aggressively pursue bereaved relatives for legacies. This was a non-story (see David Ainsworth’s excellent analysis) whose presence on the front page of a national newspaper tells us more about the sector’s fall from grace than it does about legacy fundraising.

The rapidity and severity with which critics have piled on attacks has been a shock. Even more shocking is the apparently willing audience they found. Do some find it reassuring to be told that ‘do-gooders’ are actually hypocrites? Perhaps that is why people seem prepared to believe the worst about charities. Yet the fact that this has happened should not be a surprise—the conditions for a crisis were there for all to see. Several sector commentators, including NPC, have been advising for some time that we cannot take public trust for granted, but these warnings were not heeded. I would say it was always a matter of when, not if.

In a 2013 blog I argued that the charity sector is ‘individually strong, collectively weak’, and we are now seeing the consequences of that. I gave two examples to illustrate the point. The first being the sector’s difficulty in making an effective case against attacks on its right to campaign. The second, a problem of our own making, that some of the fundraising techniques generating a return for individual charities are disliked by the public. This will ultimately undermine the ‘brand’ and reputation of UK Charity (a problem not just with fundraising, but with leadership). So as a sector we are weak in our collective defence, and, worse, by acting in our short-term individual interest we are undermining our longer-term collective interest.

Do we now know, as a sector, what we need to do to make 2016 better? I’m not sure that we do. As well as taking a fresh look at our approach to activities like fundraising, we urgently need to rethink how we respond to criticism. There is extensive literature on managing PR crises, and a fundamental principle is that when something goes wrong, the responsible parties need to demonstrate they understand why it was wrong, show contrition, and move quickly to make amends. Defensiveness, denial and prevarication just pour petrol onto the fire. As the Institute for Public Relations puts it: ‘When a crisis occurs, an organisation needs to go above and beyond the public’s expectations to manage the situation’.

Has the sector risen to this challenge? I don’t believe so. Often, we are so convinced of our rightness we seem unable to accept that our critics sometimes have a point (eg, on fundraising). This in turn makes it much harder to mount an effective defence when our critics get it wrong (eg, on campaigning or overheads). Joe Saxton put it very well when he said criticism hurts, but we need to be prepared to change our behaviour’.

The sector, then, needs to be both less defensive over the things it has done wrong, and more aggressive in its defence of things it hasn’t. As individual charities we must have more regard for the collective interests of the sector because, as we have seen, ignoring them means everyone suffers. Getting better at this will involve some painful but necessary changes to our practices. And at the same time we need to find ways to strengthen the glue that holds us together, so that we can defend our fundamental role in advocating for those we claim to serve. Not an easy task, but one we are going to have to learn.

The silver lining of all this gloom? Crisis precipitates change, and just maybe that change will leave the sector better, stronger, and with less to be defensive about.