Too much of a good cause…our lives are being slowly but surely ‘donorised’ by charities and fundraisers

I do not envy the task of charity fundraisers.  They will know that finance is the perennial worry of their Board of Trustees senior managers.  Without a steady stream of money coming in the work of the charity will become unviable. Those who it aims to help will be left without support. The pressure is on.

It’s not the generosity of the public that’s the issue.  Far from it.  It’s the intensely competitive environment in which charities are now having to raise funds.  An environment, it should be said, that has been buffeted by the harsh winds of austerity in recent years.

But some charities have clearly over-stepped the mark in making their ‘ask’ of the public.  First there was the death of poppy seller Olive Cooke.  Bombarded by demands for donations from good causes, her passing has become symbolic of charity excess. This despite the family stating many times they do not hold charities responsible. 

Since then, we have had undercover investigations by the Daily Mail and a steady stream of negative media articles highlighting bad practice. It is the perfect storm from which the charity sector is understandably reeling. 

On Saturday, the Prime Minister said ‘enough is enough’ and announced new laws as part of the Charities Bill going through parliament to tighten up fundraising regulation. Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO of NCVO, has been asked to lead a review.  Which is a shame. I think the matter is serious enough to warrant an outsider chairing the inquiry and lending it some independence.  That said, most of the charity statements I have seen have welcomed the move.

For what it is worth, last week our household received two charity bags for unwanted clothes and five letters from charities asking for donations.  On Thursday I went to the cinema and, for the third time running, the  trailers included a charity ‘ad.’  For a short while, a charity billboard marked one of the exits of the A21.  Not to mention my commute to London in which tube escalators and platforms are peppered with adverts and slogans; mostly about charity marathons, bike rides and other pursuits.

None of this is in itself bad or wrong.  You might argue it is not even that excessive.  But, whereas once upon a time we used to worry about the corporatisation of modern living, it now feels as if every day and everything we do can be ‘donorised’ by charities.

Charities need to get on top of this before it becomes their equivalent of the MPs expenses scandal or the banking crisis.   They can’t feign surprise as this issue has been slowly burning away for some time now.  Only a few weeks ago the Charity Commission published survey findings on public attitudes to the Commission and to charities which showed people inside and outside the sector want better regulation of their operations including fundraising.

Charities will no doubt want to keep a system that is predominantly about self-regulation. Or simply strengthen some of the existing measures in place. So, as the Prime Minister suggested, one possible tightening of current regulation is to legislate to ensure charities and the professional fundraisers who raise money on their behalf have written agreements in place. 

Personally, I don’t think this goes far enough. Charity bosses increasingly argue that running a charity is now akin to running a business. So perhaps we should apply the same sort of carrot and stick regulatory principles that exist in other sectors. How about fines for professional fundraisers and their charity clients who harass donors. It could be £s per person who complains or received unwanted calls or letters.  This money could then be given to the Charity Commission or distributed to other charities or projects. 

It’s been a sorry few months for charities. They need to heed the warnings. Or the public may one day decide that they have had too much of  a good cause and stop donating entirely. To the detriment of our society.

Have a good day.

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