Evil larger charities are letting down their donors and volunteer fundraisers by investing their money to get the best possible return and declining to slag off potential sponsors in the media. That’s the hard-hitting message from Tuesday’s Panorama.
If the show is anything to go by then, in the eyes of documentary makers at the BBC at least, the ‘general public’ are capable of understanding the work of charities based on one of two mindsets: it’s a choice between credulous idealism and untrammelled cynicism.
Aside from the darkly entertaining but not especially though provoking revelation that Amnesty International is not very well run, Panorama’s reporters told us that:
(a) Save the Children had chosen not deliver strong criticism of one energy giant (British Gas) at a time when the company was providing them with sponsorship, and also chosen not criticise another energy giant, EDF, at a point when it was attempting secure sponsorship from them
(b) Comic Relief both invests some of the money it raises before spending it, invests some of that money in companies that do bad stuff and, horror of horrors, has a paid staff team.
Civil Society reports that many campaigners have since taken to Twitter to suggest that donors turn away from the evil big charities and, instead, give their cash to small local charities. For example, Lottie Cee who tweeted: “Seems the moral is to give to local charities where you can see your money is going. Not some pseudo-charity-corporation #panorama“.
Clearly giving to local charities, based on knowledge of and support for what they do is a very good thing but it’s not clear to me why it’s suddenly become a better option as a result of anything revealed in Tuesday’s show. Far from being a significant feat of investigative reporting, the programme amounted to little more than an entertaining televised assault on an unarmed platoon of straw men.
If you, as a member of ‘the general public’, were genuinely shocked by the revelations about the Save the Children, it seems likely that you’re starting point is the belief that charities either should or do operate in an entirely different economy to ‘people’. How many of us, if we had a job interview at a local branch of a major supermarket one Monday, would take part in a protest outside that supermarket on the Saturday before?
There is a moral choice to be made. If that supermarket is so evil that, as a person of good conscience, you couldn’t possibly be associated with them at all, then you wouldn’t apply for a job there. On the other hand, if you’d decided that this wasn’t the case and that you did want to work for them, would you really go out of your way to give them a reason to not to employ you? Really?
In the interests of transparency, readers should note – before reading the next section – that my organisation, Social Spider CIC, has been a recipient of funding from Comic Relief.
The situation with Comic Relief is a bit more complicated. There clearly is a significant ethical issue around how charities investment their money but Comic Relief is as much a victim of wider confusion as it is a prime culprit.
Where Comic Relief definitely is at fault is in its claim, made repeatedly during its fundraising broadcasts, that when people donate to its fund ‘every penny goes to beneficiaries’. In this blog for Third Sector, David Ainsworth is entirely right to describe that statement as ‘nonsensical’.
The actual situation appears to be that, based on the income they generate from other sources (investments, the government, corporate sponsorship and licensing agreements), the amount of money Comic Relief spends over each funding cycle is never less than they amount of money raised directly from the public.
This means that while the ‘every penny’ claim might be regarded as technically correct, it is also highly misleading. Comic Relief actually spends, as Ainsworth explains, around £17million per year on staff and, if they somehow managed to somehow distribute the £100million+ worth of donations raised on Red Nose Day 2013 without spending any money on staff then, over a two-year period, they’d have at least £34million more to give to beneficiaries.
So, Comic Relief are at least partially guilty of leading their donors and volunteer fundraisers down to the river of bullshit and waiting there for Panorama’s intrepid reporters to push them into it. It’s possible that, to some extent, the ‘every penny’ claim is an anachronism. The organisation was founded in 1985 and, since there, there been a significant decline in trust in/rise in cynicism towards public institutions.
But did most Comic Relief volunteer fundraisers and donors really believe that their money was allocated through some magical system that cost nothing at all? Or were they happy to go along with a half-truth that made everyone feel better about themselves?
David Ainsworth concludes his blog post with the bold suggestion that: “Like every other charity that tries to pretend it doesn’t spend any cash on administration, it’s about time Comic Relief ditched their nonsensical claim, and explained the truth.”
He’s right but we as ‘the general public’ have an equal responsibility not to put to force charities in a position where there have to rely on these half-truths.
Another Twitter correspondent quoted by Civil Society, Sam White, writes: “#BBC #Panorama Donate to small #Charities with volunteers who work tirelessly for free, or make a homeless persons day, buy him lunch”
Ms White offers a pretty reasonable assessment of the choices on offer. You don’t have to pay for administration. You can donate your cash to small charity run entirely buy volunteers if you think they’re best placed to deliver the social change you want to see. Or you can cut out the middle people – paid or otherwise – entirely and give directly to a person you perceive to be in need. The lunch you buy may or may not make his or her day.
On the other hand, if you want to support forms of social change than can’t be delivered by entirely volunteer-run organisations or by giving directly to people in need, you will ultimately have to contribute towards the administration of organisations, either local, national or international, where skilled professionals work tirelessly for relatively low wages to deliver something that you want to happen.
Some of those organisations are better run and more effective than others. If you don’t think your donations are doing any good, you don’t have to keep donating. That’s real life and it’s real lives that charities and other social sector organisations do their best to improve. If Tuesday’s Panorama does encourage charities to be more honest about the fact they can’t do magic, we can do our bit by not expecting them to.