Charity Sector: fighting negative perceptions

by James Ketchell | Posted on 4 January 2017


If you’re in the UK then chances are that this holiday period you’ll have seen or read an article criticising charities, their management and the inefficient use of government aid.

Stories over the festive period on the front pages of the Daily Mail and inside the Sunday Times have outlined the “problem” as national papers starved of any real news of substance return to their long-standing campaign criticising charities.

The charity sector is by no means perfect and there are justifiable reasons to criticise the emergence of results-driven fundraising teams at larger charities, for example. Furthermore, aggressive door-stepping and street fundraising has also negatively impacted on perceptions of the charity sector as a whole.

However, we need to return to focusing on the social good delivered by the sector, rather than the views of a handful of vitriolic newspaper editors and vocal online critics.

Below I have outlined some of the areas which have attracted criticism and also outlined some of our own thoughts on how the sector needs to confidently and proactively fight back against this criticism, how the Government could help by providing more resources to back charity regulation, and how a simple change of semantics might help.

 Chief Executive pay

One of the first media campaigns against the sector, there appears to be an unwritten rule that people who work in the charity world should not be paid more than the Prime Minister – probably the most arbitrary figure possible, but one that seems to gain traction with the public nonetheless.

The Third Sector research into charity pay showed that the median pay level of the 100 highest paying charities’ CEOs was £165,000 in 2015 (and that this figure was the same as it was in 2013). On paper and in first instances, this figure jars and “feels” like a lot. The reality, to my mind, is slightly different.

For example, the Chief Executive of Scope runs a complicated organisation which is responsible for more than 3,500 staff, and an income of £100 million a year. In return they get a Chief Executive who has the skills, knowledge and expertise to effectively lead the organisation and to ensure that the charity continues to deliver for its beneficiaries. For £130,000 a year, I think that’s an absolute bargain and compares extremely favourably with CEO pay levels in the private sector.

However, charities could help themselves on this particular issue, here. A standard approach to sharing senior executive pay levels across the sector, coupled with the wide-spread adoption of remuneration ratios (which ensures a consistent difference between top and bottom earners) should be adopted and shared openly within charities’ annual reports and on their websites.

Charities need to apply the principles of transparency and impact to all areas of their operations, not just for their programme delivery.

Cash for aid

The Daily Mail’s online headline screams out to the reader attempting to stoke anger, Queue here for UK's £1bn foreign aid cashpoint: Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse... YOUR cash is doled out in envelopes and on ATM cards loaded with money”… And on a first read it, as with the levels of Chief Executive pay, “feels” wrong. Furthermore, it’s clear to the reader that the Daily Mail thinks this is wrong too.

The article examines the use of cash payments to 235,000 Pakistani families in a programme which is part-funded by the UK Government and also outlines the “corruption” and “misuse” of the tax-payer funded scheme. Furthermore, it also outlines that more than £1 billion has been donated in this way over the last five years.

However, the Overseas Development Institute has proved that even when taking corruption into account, donating cash has been proved to be an effective means to delivering social good. Here’s the truth: cash transfers are cheaper to deliver, more flexible than traditional aid and can be a better way of helping people in some of the most complicated contexts. Research has shown that they’re between 18% and 30% more effective than the delivery of traditional aid.

These programmes have been some twenty years in the making, trialled extensively throughout the world and from a variety of organisations. It’s has been proven that giving unconditional cash (or vouchers/pre-paid cards) can lead to huge increases in income, assets, psychological wellbeing, food consumption, and female empowerment among the extreme poor. Cash programmes are reducing dependencies on existing humanitarian/development organisations and leading innovation in the sector.

While greed and corruption might be particular issues in this instance, they need to be viewed within their wider context of helping hundreds of thousands of families. Giving cash is an efficient way of helping the poor to help themselves out of poverty. 

So what can be done?

The two examples are only the two most recent public criticisms of the charity sector. Political campaigning, fundraising, charity management have also had a light shone on them from the mainstream media. It all adds up to a picture of a self-serving charity sector.

Although slightly different in each instance, similar traits emerge:

  1. The story is focused, and selective facts chosen by newspapers to rile as many people as possible;
  2. Social media shares are generated and online comments whip up a frenzy, delivering the ultimate reward for the publishers: advertiser clicks.
  3. Meanwhile, Editors are delighted to have found a new whipping boy for slow news days.

In each instance the response from the sector has ranged from non-existent to slow, as individual charities attempted to distance themselves from the bad news. However, here’s our message for the sector: this will not just go away and ignoring the problem is only making things worse. This approach portrays the sector as arrogant and unanswerable, reinforcing accusations around what are, on first impressions, reasonable areas of concern.

So what’s the solution? There have been suggestions for a media campaign to highlight the good work of charities, the creation of a BBC charities correspondent role, and an OFSTED for charities. While these initiatives might help, we believe there’s no magic bullet and feel that time and resources would be better spent on helping charities to get the communication basics right first, on reforming governance and in educating the public:

A focus on transparency and impact should permeate. From the fundraising pamphlet to the annual report via the website, all communications should present the work of the organisation clearly and honestly. Impact can be both heartfelt and fact-driven, but it needs to be demonstrated in plain English.

Charities should proactively respond to these online storms. Newspaper articles can be fact-checked, opinion pieces representing the other side of the story can be shared, online comments should be responded to where realistically possible. The internet age has given charities the chance to share their own voice with the public and they should do so.

We’d welcome any initiative which aims to train and educate the charity sector in reporting and communicating. Small charities could be helped through the creation of standard templates and communication tools (a simple impact report, standardised “daily mail proof FAQs” for each organisation to use and share).

Government could also help by giving the Charity Commission more resources. The institution effectively has formal powers but in reality lacks the resource to actually proactively enact or enforce these amongst a market of over 180,000 charities. We’d welcome a greater role and powers for the commission to help rebuild trust, however this will need financial resources.  

Educating the public is necessary too. Donors should be doing more to hold charities to account, which is only effectively possible once the shroud of mystery is properly lifted on the not for profit sector. Although there are valid differences between the charity sector and the commercial world, it is no way as complex as some have made out and one feels that this has shielded charities from measurement and monitoring from those outside the sector. Linking to charities who share impact clearly, a simple education of the public on the nature and role of charities, and a translation of the jargon coupled with simple myth-busting, would enable donors to more effectively monitor.

Finally, we’d like to see the Government doing more to support charities and the sector more widely. MPs are quick to champion local charities when seeking election, in return Ministers could and should come out in support for the sector when it is being attacked in the media. Their failure to do in the face of attacks by newspapers like the Daily Mail is, quite simply, political cowardice.

James has over ten years experience in communications within the charity and social good sectors, working for two national charities as well as in CSR communications for a global health and beauty group. He is COO of Boncerto.