Recent failures of governance at high profile charities such as Kids Company have been subject to many articles, much comment and some analysis. I do not intend to add to this but have been reflecting on the role of trustees – and specifically charity board chairs and their responsibilities.
There is no question it has been a depressing year for all of us who feel passionate about our roles as fundraisers. For years we kidded ourselves that net income was the priority (and who can blame us for that when we could see how desperately beneficiaries needed the services that income provided) and that we just had to accept that some people would never like the techniques we used. Quite rightly we are now seeing a strengthening of the Codes of Practice and a major structural change in regulation.
Earlier this year, William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, said the fundraising scandal had tipped charities into a crisis. Few agreed, but the Fundraising Standards Board reports more than 1,000 complaints a week and Sir Stuart Etherington has just recommended in his review of fundraising a new, tougher system of fundraising self-regulation. So there is clearly something seriously wrong. I would argue that the fundraising scandal is a symptom of a wider malaise of crisis proportions.
The bandwagon about the salaries of senior staff in charities rolls on. This is part of a wider debate about competence, probity and efficiency, stoked by people who, one suspects, have a tenuous relationship with evidence and a penchant for selection of anecdotes which buttress their case. The report earlier this summer in the Sun which expressed surprise that Alzheimer’s Society wasn’t run entirely by volunteers is an example.
The refugee crisis has been brewing for the past year, and has suddenly come into sharp focus following the pictures last week of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The public mood has shifted dramatically, and now many people want to help. The key question is how.
There is a narrative that some politicians are trying to spread that campaigning is a diversion from the real work of charities. Charities should “stick to the knitting” of service delivery. The reality is that both campaigning and service delivery are equally important for charities. Many of our best-known charities have been campaigning to change government policy or public attitudes, or both, for hundreds of years. Here are some examples.
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.