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July 10, 2015

Trashing the Charity Sector

Back in 2010, the Reputation Institute1 measured the level of public trust of leading corporates and charities. The RNLI topped the list ahead of highly respected organisations such as Rolls Royce and Boots -indeed 7 of the top 10 on the list were charities.

Only five years on and the picture is changing fast. According to New Philanthropy Capital, trust of charities among the public is poor with 35% showing low levels of trust 2. Organisations perceived to stay out of politics and those seen to be run by volunteers were trusted more than campaigning organisations, or those perceived to be too 'professional.' One of the quotes from the sample reflects an attitude that many of us working in the sector have doubtless heard variations of over the past years and now sounds depressingly familiar:

'Charities no longer seem to be charitable. They do not help the people they say that they are there to help. They seem to be tax dodging enterprises set up to make tax dodging greedy people rich.'

The charity sector has been bashed by the popular press and the broadsheets alike. How much charities spend on their administration, how much they pay their chief executive, how much they duplicate each other's work - you could be forgiven for thinking charities are the new banks: Necessary but fundamentally flawed.

How have we allowed this to happen?

Some people see the Government as behind a concerted attempt to discredit the sector. This seems counter intuitive - we expect a right of centre administration to promote the sector, moving towards a model relying on the sector for the delivery of critical services. But the argument runs along the lines that the sector is being discredited to undermine its authority and thereby prevent it from effectively criticising Government welfare cuts, in particular, and cuts in international aid. For certain, the right wing press regularly enjoys taking a shot at the sector. Back in 2002 The Daily Mail ran an article entitled ' A Cause unworthy of your support' 3 criticising the British Red Cross and their work with asylum seekers (interestingly the BRC were one of the highest scoring charities in the 2010 trust research so no long term damage done there then). Last month The Sun launched an 'expose'  on Charity Fat Cats4 criticising the salaries of the CEOs of a range of well known charities including the NSPCC, Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie, accusing them of enjoying 'sky high salaries and the luxury lifestyles that go with them.'

At this point, many of us in the sector 'reading' The Sun might have been forgiven for choking on our organic fair trade decaffeinated tea. No doubt many of us have looked to our representative bodies, particularly ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) and the NCVO (the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) for a robust response and a quick, strong defence of the obvious: charities have multiple and demanding stakeholders who hold them to account in many different ways; the organisations are complex and diverse so even making meaningful comparisons inter-sector is challenging; if you want to look at how efficient and effective an organisation is, you don't look at the pay of its CEO, you look at its impact - so this whole thread of 'who is earning more than the PM' is completely misleading. You can become an Avon Lady and earn more than David Cameron.5  Unfortunately the public wants its cake sale and to eat it too. Professionally run, but not run by professionals - how do we pull that one off?

So what have ACEVO and the NCVO been saying about all of this? Have they mounted a counter attack? Developed a concerted PR campaign to promote the impact the sector has on all our lives?  The NCVO invited a couple of journalists along to its recent Evolve Conference to talk about the recent attacks on the sectors reputation. Andrew Pierce, consultant editor at The Daily Mail confessed '"Some attacks are politically motivated but those salaries are very hard to justify." 6 . This tacit acknowledgement of a political motive behind the attacks is alarming.

Joe Saxton, from NFP Synergy, in a recent Guardian piece on CEO pay7 sums it up well:

"What a mess and how ill-prepared the charity sector is to defend the salaries it pays..The sector needs to explain better why it does what it does. It needs to marshal its arguments to show that the £100k chief executive is a bargain, not a fat cat."

It needs to explain that investing in fundraising is the only way to grow a charity to do more great work. It needs to stop people seeing admin as a shameful waste, but as the management oil that keeps the wheels turning."

We need to see a concerted campaign to both defend the charity sector from misleading and inaccurate attacks on its work, and to promote the work that it does to keep the wheels on the civil society bus. However neither the NCVO or ACEVO seem keen to take this on, perhaps too keen to keep on the right side of the political administration, or preferring just to discuss the issues endlessly at their expensive annual conferences.

Unless we start to see some kind of push back from the sector, it will continue to make it a challenging environment to bring talented trustees, staff and volunteers into. We rely on people prepared to give their time and expertise to organisations that they would have traditionally been proud of. Trash that excellent reputation and we risk losing the very people who have the ability to transform it.

1.    The Guardian Charities shine in reputation chart  
2.    New Philanthropy Capital, Matter of Trust, what the public thinks of
5.    BT - Meet the Avon Lady who earns more than the Prime Minister
6.    Civil Society Newspapers dont want good news stories about charities

7.    The Guardian Are charity chiefs paid too much?


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