Is charity a dirty word?

The Prostate Cancer Charity launched its new brand last week, deliberately dropping the word ‘charity’ from the name because of concern that it conjures up the image of well meaning amateurs rather than effective professionals. There are two key issues here: one is the explicit use of the word ‘charity’ as an identifier; the other is the potentially increasing cynicism that the charity sector is engendering in the general public.

On the first, it would seem to make sense to drop the word from the name if an organisation’s charitable status is implicit in every other aspect of its brand. Tesco and Sainsburys don’t suffix their names with ‘supermarket’ because it is redundant, and that is the case here. It is perhaps no coincidence that the new name echoes very prominent charities like Age UK and Cancer Research UK in wanting to emphasise its reach and relevance, so the word ‘charity’ is an obvious casualty as a literal signifier.

Prostate Cancer UK

The second issue – the one they’ve stated publicly as part of their reasoning for the change –  is more troubling for the sector as a whole.

There continues to be an outmoded but prevalent public belief that ‘good charities’ spend every last penny on the cause they work for, with a body of volunteers humbly toiling for free and miraculously avoiding all costs associated with running an organisation – fuelled by good will and little else. This contrasts sharply with ‘bad charities’, those with chief executives earning six figure salaries, and others with teams of feral street fundraisers harassing the ordinary Joe in the street. This has come about partly as a result of charities themselves pandering to the old fashioned stereotype in their own communications, and partly because the term itself has been stretched to straining point.

As a catch-all term, charity now represents a very broad church indeed, from the tiny, volunteer-run community group to national and international agencies like the British Red Cross and Oxfam. The nature, approach and diversity of the work they do has also developed dramatically, perhaps most radically and challengingly in the delivery of public sector work. As a result, the meaning of the word has evolved dramatically since the concept of charity was first codified, so it is perhaps not surprising that it is disappearing from charity brands.

Only three of the top 100 UK charities currently use the word as part of their name according to Prostate Cancer UK’s research. As they launched the rebrand, Prostate Cancer UK talked about its desire to highlight the breadth of the charity as an organisation comprising a variety of professional nurses, researchers, marketers and managers, as well as volunteers, and obviously feel the work is an impediment to it doing so.

However, there is a strong counter argument for keeping the word charity as part of the front line descriptions of charitable organisations. Social enterprises, public bodies and the private sector are starting to muscle in on the sector’s territory, wearing its clothes when describing their social purpose and impact. Again, this is partly as a result of charities delving into their traditional areas of work and smudging the lines of distinction for public audiences.

The natural end point might be for charity simply to become a technical term, a badge for organisations that have formalised themselves as charities, rather than a term of resonance for the general public. At the moment, the word for many conjures up the old fashioned image already outlined, or provokes a cynical response or both.

The sector may soon be faced with a fork in the road: letting the term die out as a collective badge of honour for the sector and fighting it out with all the other organisations working to deliver positive change; or trying to imbue it with a new sense of identity, a term that reflects who and what charities are now and will be in the future, a distinctive sector worthy of special attention and special support. Perhaps the sector won’t know what it’s lost until it is gone.

Peter Gilheany is a director at communications agency Forster

  • A Smith

    Peter, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Having held senior level fundraising and PR/comms jobs in charities of differing sizes, I can confirm the frustrating tendancy of some to promote the image of well meaning amateurism. I guess it’s a comfort blanket for many a Trustee/Director too timid to face up to the challenge of positioning their organisation in an increasingly competitive market place. Unfortunately it’s the charities they govern, and their benficiaries, that end up paying the price.

    Sadly I’ve had more than enough of working in a sector that behaves like a ‘rabbit in the headlinghts’ and am juggling jobs whilst retraining as a management accountant. On an almost daily basis I meet talented, hard working, successful charity sector ‘exiles’ who have also jumped ship. It’s a shame, but I’m in no position to convince them that they’ve made a mistake.

  • Mick Watson

    I agree and like A Smith am a charity exile too. I think it’ll be hard to shake the well-meaning amateurism tag when, in my experience, there are a lot of (decently paid) amateurs in the sector (this goes from admin assistants to chief executives and trustees). It’s a real shame.

    I have a friend who works with companies and organisations on their communications (presentations, fundraising etc). His company works with politicians, bankers and they do pro-bono work charities. He told me, rather uncomfortably, that whilst politicians and bankers may not be very popular and have their faults he was amazed at how unfocussed, unengaged and, often, late the third sector workers were when taking a course. The aforementioned politicians and bankers were diligent and focused and he feared for the third sector as a result. An anecdotal story, yes, but one that’s hard to shake as it certainly reflects my time working in the sector.

    I wonder whether the sector as a whole is too bloated? And, if so, how it could be freshened up – without it having a negative impact on those who rely on it.

  • Daniel Robinson

    I wonder whether this is partly an American influence. I’ve noticed in a lot of literature from the states that the term ‘philanthropy’ is taken to mean something professional, scientific and rational (perhaps dating back to Carnegie and Rockefeller’s scientific philanthropy), whilst ‘charity’ is seen as more of an emotional response to immediate need, which neglects to tackle the underlying causes of that needs. Personally I think it is a spurious distinction, and is based more on trying to present a particular image, rather than any real difference in approach or activities. I still prefer the term charity, both for its historic and cultural familiarity, and its capturing of the importance of love and cherishing as the prime motives.

    • umair iqbal

      What is also very important is that the donors and beneficiaries have a clear and honest understanding of exactly what kind of giving is going on in a particular context — and that they say it out loud. There are true benefits to old-fashioned charitable giving (which should be discussed more often) and no one should feel the need to pretend that it is something that it is not. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. Catherine Crystal Foster

      ~Ali Raza
      1love org

  • Guy Smith

    No one can argue with the value of volunteers – every charity should make the most of people willing to donate their valuable time.
    But I feel that this article should be taken with a pinch of salt for oversimplifying the issue.
    You don’t just need bodies, you need skills – that volunteers won’t necessarily have – and the whole point of investing your funds in paid employees is that they necessarily bring a much greater return on investment than volunteers – since even volunteers need someone to manage and direct their efforts.