Where’s the charity sector’s sense of corporate responsibility?

Forster Communications’ new report, Matching Method to Mission, highlights a stark and somewhat shocking truth. Only two of the top 100 charities (Cancer Research UK and RNLI) have a corporate responsibility policy.

The report’s authors rightly raise this as a pressing concern. The impact on public trust is severe. The risk of further poor behaviour is real. And the sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest will be affected.

Once again, the private sector is outshining the charity sector, as it is on issues such as diversity. The report’s authors suggest that the “Halo Effect” might be a factor: explaining that because “charities rely on an outdated belief that because they are a charity, everything they do must be beneficial.”

That’s very obviously not true: the scandals of Olive Cooke, Kids Company and the Garden Bridge all spring immediately to mind.

The report also quotes Virgin Media’s Head of Sustainability, Katie Buchanan: “Ultimately, charities don’t have a monopoly on creating social change and businesses may choose to take on a social issue without them.” She warns that this lack of attention to how we conduct our business may affect our ability to build corporate partnerships in future.

We need to step up to address some of the most pressing issues of our time

Those of us who pay even the slightest attention to the non-Brexit news these days will be wrestling, at least on some level, with the existential issue of climate change. We must be careful to choose optimism over despair, as I’ve previously written, but there’s no question that the situation is dire. And, as my former colleague Russell Benson has written, “if we are truly on course to destroy our planet, why bother with our missions anyway?”

Most of us, I hope, have chosen to work in the charity sector due to a sense of social responsibility. Why would we therefore be satisfied by workplace policies that don’t prioritise train travel over short-haul flights where possible? That don’t ensure that materials for marathon runners are fairly produced? That aren’t bothered about an ethical investment policy?

Divestment from fossil fuels would be a good place to start

It is heartening to read that a coalition of charities has requested guidance from the Charity Commission on whether they are legally required to align their investments with their mission. (There is no clear response from the Charity Commission as yet)

Whatever the Charity Commission decides, I believe charities have a moral imperative to at least consider divestment from fossil fuels and other socially harmful industries, beyond those causes that are seen to directly conflict with their mission. We might not be the largest sector in the UK, but we command £92bn of assets. That’s indeed significant. The Church of England has made the decision to divest from fossil fuels, as has my faith group, Quakers in Britain.

Personally, I try to practice what I preach. I keep my savings with Triodos – a bank that only makes investments that have a positive impact on the world – and have opened a Triodos Junior ISA for my daughter. Beyond my personal decisions, however, it’s also important to me to work for employers that share my values, and I expect many of my peers feel the same.

We should think about our place in the world, and expect to be challenged

Without a proper focus on corporate responsibility, we can expect more scandals, more bad publicity and more difficult questions from the public.

We’ve already seen the environmental question impact charities this year, with the criticism directed towards Comic Relief for the plastic waste created by Red Nose Day.

Will we continue to lag behind businesses and faith groups, or will we step up and show leadership on one of the most critical challenges of modern times?

After all, as Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming, whether you like it or not”.

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