In recent weeks a whirlwind of accusations has struck fundraisers. Combine this with criticism of charity chief executive salaries, and you can perhaps begin to understand the perception of charities as ruthless and money-grabbing. While many of the media comments are ill-informed and taken out of context, they do point to a growing cynicism about charities. Trust is the lifeblood of voluntary organisations, so if we ignore this trend, we risk endangering the health of the sector.
In reality, most members of the public – beneficiaries or donors – have no real evidence of how charity money is being used; they simply rely on trust. If, as a beneficiary, you are going to open up your life to a charity worker when you are feeling particularly vulnerable, you really need to believe they have your best interests at heart. Similarly, donors need to be convinced that charity staff are both professional and truly working for the cause. So if integrity is being questioned, it strikes at the heart of what charities do, and we must listen to those alarm bells and act quickly and decisively. This, of course, requires charities to rebuff accusations promptly and robustly. However, we also need to reflect on how this situation has come about and consider whether charity culture is fuelling these misperceptions.
Charities have changed massively over the past 20 years and the move to be more business-like has, in many situations, had an unfortunate side effect of over-simplifying approaches to measuring success. I have heard many senior charity staff talk about their success in terms of an increase in numbers of staff, the opening of new offices and an increase in donations. While they are important, these indicators are meaningless if they do not result in a greater benefit to the cause. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We all know cash-strapped charities that have no offices and are run by volunteers who are doing brilliant work, and many that are financially successful where the work is not so brilliant.
In our conversations, charities do not talk enough about values and the beneficial impact we’re having on the world. I have yet to hear a charity chief executive gloat about the fact they have successfully completed what they set out to do and are closing down. While measures of impact might be in the annual report and monitoring returns, every day discussions and celebrations are still grounded on the assumption that bigger is better when it comes to measuring charity success. But is a charity that has been in existence for 70 years, doubled its income in 12 months and trebled the size of its London offices really a success? And if we are talking about these as measures of success, is it any wonder then that people question our integrity?
The benefit to our cause is the only real measure of a charity’s success. As soon as success measures move away from this, so staff efforts and energies become distorted and this will inevitably lead to unsavoury practices. Fundraising teams will feel pressured to get the money in at any cost without considering the wider ethical implications. It is always true that what gets measured gets done. If people get recognition for hitting financial goals but not for behaving ethically, then they are not going to worry too much about being nice to vulnerable donors.
Charities need to to treat this latest controversy as the impetus to review priorities and refocus the conversation. Where are the stories about the changes to people’s lives? Where are the examples of communities that are now self-reliant because of charity work? Where are the successful exit strategies? Charities need to bring values, integrity and ethics back to centre stage, because if we just focus on our money and size we will become indistinguishable from commercial organisations. And if that happens, then why would anybody need a charity sector?
Stella Smith is a strategy and governance consultant