Portrayals of philanthropy in popular culture

I’m always intrigued when charities and/or fundraising get a mention in mainstream culture. It doesn’t happen too often, and when it does, it’s often superficial. I found this article on Blue Avocado which gives some good examples and notes that charities, their staff, and related issues are often purely used as backdrop, providing the vehicle for unrelated character or storyline development. Unhelpful stereotypes are also pervasive. It’s almost as if writers for TV and film don’t have much experience of charity work!

The Blue Avocado article, however, is from a while ago, so I thought it would be entertaining to look at some more recent instances, which follow below.

I don’t watch huge amounts of TV/streaming services so I’m sure I’m missing other good examples. Moreover, all of the below are from American TV shows; I’d love to hear if anyone has British examples.

Suits (Season 8, Episode 6)

The increasingly preposterous legal drama has a storyline about a dodgy charity. The reason they start investigating the charity is because “most charities spend five percent of their income on fundraising”, but the charity in question spends a shocking 5.3%. There must, therefore, be foul play at hand.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

From this we can learn that, in America at least, myths about fundraising expenditure – and presumably also overheads – still abound.

Excuse me while I go and bang my head on my desk repeatedly for several minutes.

The Bold Type (Season 2, Episode 1)

I really like The Bold Type. It’s fun and easy to watch, but addresses some social issues with more complexity and panache than your average mainstream TV series.

This episode features an entrepreneur whose company donates menstrual cups to homeless shelters. However, it turns out that the menstrual cups are essentially useless to homeless women, who lack the hygiene facilities required to use them safely.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

This represents an excellent example of the blindness caused by privilege. Many charities will have faced the headache of dealing with a well-meaning donor who hasn’t done their research and wants to give them something utterly useless. I applaud The Bold Type for recognising some of the complexities involved in philanthropy.

Billions (Season 1, Episode 2)

The bombastic Billions has a strong major donor storyline early on. The brash billionaire wants his name on a performance arts centre and offers to buy out the incumbent donors. He then savagely gazunders them as an act of revenge for a past insult, lowering his offer by $16 million. The centre representative tries to offer some lofty words about the importance of philanthropy, but this is hilariously dismissed: this particular major donor isn’t interested in social good. Revenge, and the social cachet of the naming rights, are all he cares about.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

From Billions we gain a healthy reminder that all major donors have their own reasons for giving, and we may sometimes get caught in the crossfire of conflicts that we don’t understand.

Times have moved on, a little

Since the Blue Avocado article was published a decade ago, there have been some slightly more nuanced depictions of charities and philanthropy. But as the Suits example shows, unhelpful myths still persist. I don’t know what we can do about this, other than try to get more charity workers jobs as TV writers.

Why shouldn’t charities be covered in the business press?

Frequently I hear a fellow fundraiser complain that the mainstream press only ever covers the bad news stories about charities. This complaint has become more prevalent ever since the various scandals in the UK have arisen over the last few years.

For me, this attitude isn’t sufficiently based in reality to be credible. When has the mainstream press ever prioritised good news? Have you read the news recently? It’s generally all pretty terrible.

I do empathise with the sense of frustration, though. Charities only tend to get covered when: a) one of them has done something bad; b) one of them hasn’t actually done anything wrong, but the press claims foul play regardless; c) a spokesperson is commenting on something related to the cause; or d) a celebrity is involved in doing something eye-catching.

The public sees charities as cuddly, which is nice, but it hits our credibility

In the UK, there is often a tension between how the public sees charities – and expects us to act – and the practical realities of running a complex organisation on a shoestring. The public often expects charities to be staffed by volunteers, and the reaction towards any six-figure salary is often very negative.

Vu Le has written extensively about the harmful impact of such beliefs in the US. And they hurt us here, too.

The mainstream dialogue about charities is limited. I suppose the concept of “charity” often hits emotional buttons, especially when coupled with stories of real or supposed wrongdoing.

What if there was a more cool-headed, yet still compelling way to engage the world in our work?

Charities are complex, fascinating and difficult to run

I often wonder why we rarely see charities covered in the mainstream business press.

Maybe this is my inner charity nerd coming out, but I think some of the challenges faced by the sector are unique and fascinating. Balancing restricted grants against running costs?  Mergers? Innovations in project delivery?

We see similar detail about commerce in the business sections of newspapers. I suppose that’s often linked to share prices and investments. But we’re often told to manage major donor relationships as if they’re investing in us like they do in businesses. Understandably, they want to see bang for their buck, and they need to have confidence in the senior management team.

Getting journalists interested might not be totally impossible

Private sector professionals may very well be interested in the inner workings of charities – especially if they are considering their philanthropy. So I believe there’s an audience for charity news that goes beyond the trade press.

I’m not being completely speculative and idealistic: I note with great interest that Harvard Business Review occasionally runs articles on American nonprofits, including in-depth features.

I expect that HBR has substantial resources – perhaps more than the UK business press. It’s also notable that their charity opinion pieces are by people with substantial standing and reputation beyond the charity world, such as Dan Pallotta. The voice of the charity mainstream is missing.

Maybe some of our sector leaders should pitch more often to the business press. Perhaps charity PR departments could consider it as an option, although it’s not my area of expertise: possibly they do already and have encountered barriers. If so, it would be worth considering what we can do to overcome these barriers and get journalists interested.

If we can better publicise the challenges we face, perhaps our work – and our leaders – will be more widely respected and admired beyond our own circles, and we’ll be less likely to face situations like this.

Ethics in fundraising goes far beyond the donations acceptance policy

I read NCVO’s recently published Charity Ethical Principles with great interest. It highlights four principles via which charities should aspire to high ethical standards:

  • Beneficiaries first
  • Integrity
  • Openness
  • Right to be safe

I applaud its recognition that charities have impacts – both positive and negative – beyond their specific missions. It covers, for example, the importance of workforce diversity, the role that culture plays in ensuring staff feel safe at work, and a commitment to reducing environmental impact. However, it does not explore why these things are important, and for me this raised some interesting questions.

Is putting the beneficiary first always the right thing to do?

The Charity Ethical Principles states that “The interests of their beneficiaries and the causes they work for should be at the heart of everything charities and those who work and volunteer in and with them do.

I agree with this statement. However, it also seems that pretty much anything a charity wants to do can be justified by “beneficiaries first”. High-pressure tactics from street fundraisers? Check. Mass mailings with only the barest nod to personalisation? Check. Hiring unpaid interns to reduce the staffing bill? Check.

Why stop there? A homelessness charity probably can’t accept funding from the alcohol industry. But the arms trade wouldn’t be a direct conflict – and it can be highly lucrative! If selling weapons to questionable regimes raises more money for a good cause, it’s putting beneficiaries first. Isn’t it?

Obviously that’s a ridiculous statement. Aside from the practicalities of a small charity opening a trading arm to sell fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, we all know that it would be unconscionable. And it would cause a public outcry.

What do we do when “beneficiaries first” appears to conflict with our other responsibilities?

I’m by no means the first to ask this type of question. Rogare, the fundraising think tank, is developing an ethics model for fundraising: its particular focus is balancing the twin philosophies of “donor first” and “beneficiary first”.

Rogare’s Ian Macquillin recognises that “charities are run as two ‘separate’ organisations, serving two different roles to two different stakeholders [i.e. beneficiaries and donors] in two different markets (which is a key difference to commercial organisations)”.

Reconciling the needs of these two groups is no easy job. Macquillin makes the convincing argument, though, that we need a framework involving more than simply what feels right to us, or what the public, or the Daily Mail, thinks is right. We need to be able to justify what we do as fundraisers, and think twice about anything that has the potential to cause damage.

But do charities have responsibilities beyond the beneficiary and the donor? How important are these, and what does the public expect from us?

The negative externalities of fundraising and charity work

A “negative externality” is “a cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction“. The negative effects of pollution caused by commercial vehicles, for example, isn’t borne by the businesses, but rather those living in the environment around them. (This is the logic behind London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone).

Learning this phrase made me wonder: what are the negative externalities of our charity work? There must be plenty: not because we are ill-intentioned, but simply because we operate in the same world as everyone else. Off the top of my head:

  • Charities may have investments in fossil fuel or arms manufacturers – indirectly contributing to pollution / global instability
  • T-shirts and other fundraising materials may not be produced to high ethical standards – affecting the welfare of workers in other countries
  • A culture of bullying causes stress and ill health in employees – a cost that is borne by their family, and possibly also by the NHS

Why should we care?

It’s impossible for any of us to avoid leaving a footprint on the world – however hard we try. We might think it’s particularly difficult for cash-strapped charities.

But this, in my view, is the wrong way to look at it. By striving to be “good” in everything we do, beyond the narrow confines of our mission statements, we can make even more of an impact on the world – and ultimately on our bottom lines:

  • Striving for a more diverse workforce isn’t just “good”; there’s a strong business case for it.
  • Treating donors’ data with care and respect will engender trust and higher income over the long term. Having seen some privacy policies, it’s blatantly obvious which organisations are striving towards transparency and which are trying to find loopholes to wiggle through. If I can spot the difference, the public certainly can.
  • The charity sector may not be the biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, but we all have a responsibility to try and make the whole world better. And there are likely to be huge investment opportunities in clean energy.
  • All of the above safeguards the reputation of the charity sector. The media continues to throw mud at charities; proving that we operate in good faith will ensure that less of it sticks. And we know that, reputation-wise, one charity behaving badly affects all of the others.

Maybe I’m coming across as naive and idealistic, but surely most of us in the charity sector are here because we do want to make the world a better place overall. So my argument is that doing all of the above is putting the beneficiary first. 

Finally, I’ve heard peers complain – particularly in light of the mass mailing scandals – that the charity sector is criticised more than the private sector. Well, don’t we want to be better? Why shouldn’t we be held to high standards? If we are truly committed to putting our beneficiaries first, we should relish the challenge.

I love being right about blockchain, but also have a serious point to make

Scepticism about blockchain is turning into one of my favourite subjects. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

I was pleased to discover that my views are backed up by a recent study, which found “no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved” despite the glowing claims and forceful optimism of its proponents. (There’s also a good summary at The Register.)

Tellingly, when the study authors reached out to these enthusiasts, “not one was willing to share data on program results”. It turns out, therefore, that these companies don’t exactly practice what they preach when it comes to radical transparency.

It feels lovely to be able to say “I told you so”. However, there’s a serious side to all of this. I’ve recently read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, which summarises his phenomenal investigation into the Theranos scandal. It’s fascinating and shocking and I highly recommend it.

In short, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors were taken in by Elizabeth Holmes, a glamorous, charismatic leader who claimed to have developed a groundbreaking blood-testing device. This device, however, never existed in a functional format. It’s no longer going well for Holmes, although her story is probably going to make a great film.

The unravelling of Kids Company is similar in many ways: like Theranos it involved a charismatic founder with access to the highest echelons of political influence, but a painful lack of real impact evidence.

In both cases, the damage goes far beyond the wallets of funders or investors. Patients used inaccurate blood test results from Theranos machines to make decisions about their health, and vulnerable children under the care of Kids Company may have been put at risk.

It would be awful if anything like this happened again in our sector, but I believe there’s a risk if we take new technological claims at face value. I hope all of us can maintain a healthy scepticism towards anyone who claims that any new technology can solve social justice issues. Perhaps it can, but if these claims are grounded in reality, their proponents won’t mind answering difficult questions.

Moreover, I don’t buy the claim that only those with technical expertise can really understand. Any of us with a modicum of intelligence can get a handle on these proposals and identify the gaps.

After all, it’s much better to cause momentary awkwardness through asking a tricky question than hurt the people we are all trying to help.

Quitting social media: reflections one month on

I’ve now passed the 30 day grace period for deleting my various social media accounts, so there’s no going back – at least not without rebuilding profiles from scratch. Luckily, I don’t feel the need.

Here are some of my initial reflections on my first social media-free month.

It’s already led to more meaningful conversations

After deleting my social media, I reached out to personal and professional contacts to let them know. On the professional side, I received a few lovely, warm emails which in some cases led to interesting discussions.

No-one questioned my decision and they all appreciated me getting in touch. So far, therefore, this supports my hypothesis that social media has an opportunity cost, and without it I feel motivated to make a bit more effort to deepen my relationships.

On the other hand… it can be harder to get in touch

After reading an article by a fellow fundraiser, I wanted to make contact. Unfortunately I could only find Twitter and LinkedIn details. After a bit of hunting I found an email for a professional side-project connected to this person.

I’m also unable to participate in the Fundraising Chat and Critical Fundraising Forum Facebook groups. I do miss reading the discussions on these groups, and they have been useful in the past in sourcing interviewees for blog posts.

I’m undeterred, however; it’s difficult to leave these sites because there is a real social cost to doing so. I’m committed to paying that cost and still believe I can find a different way to thrive professionally.

Having a blog has made it easier to quit other platforms

Having an established online presence meant that I didn’t feel I was disappearing into the professional ether. I can provide evidence of my fundraising and writing credentials without using LinkedIn. Coupled with my distinctive surname, this means that anyone who is looking for me can find me quite easily.

On the other hand… visitors to this blog have dropped significantly

Twitter was incredibly useful for driving traffic to this blog; I had a modest following of fundraisers who would often click on and retweet the links I provided.

Twitter is still my main referrer, but numbers have dropped to a trickle. I’m grateful to those who are still Tweeting my blog posts, but it would be hypocritical of me to actively encourage this.

Nevertheless, I believe that I can still build up a following and gain traction via other strategies: the main one being providing interesting and useful content. The Internet, and social media in particular, is so full of rubbish that I believe good-quality content does get attention eventually. It may just take a little longer.

I’m more intentionally reading the news

I realised I was getting a lot of my news through links provided by social media algorithms. Due to growing concerns about fake news, I now intentionally read several different news sites including paying a subscription for one. On the fundraising side I’m taking more time to read articles by the trade press.

I’m also finding I’m able to more easily focus on reading more and longer articles; my attention isn’t constantly flicking back to the feed. I feel better informed and more knowledgeable about issues that concern me, such as climate change.

I feel like my mind, and my identity, is my own again

However much we try to avoid it, we are all performing to some extent on social media. I consciously tried not to, but this avoidance of performance is also a type of performance. Social media presents your content as your full humanity while at the same time being incredibly reductive. There’s no space for nuance.

A blog gives me space to explore ideas in more depth while also retaining ownership of my writing. And I’m not exactly sure why, but a blog doesn’t feel like it needs to represent the full extent of my identity in the same way that social media does. This feels freeing.

For the first few days after quitting, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone, before realising I had nothing to look at, and putting it back down. This impulse disappeared within a week. I also feel readier to embrace a wandering mind and make time in my life for pockets of deeper thinking. I hope and believe that this will help me fulfil my aspirations as a fundraiser and a writer.

I agree with Cal Newport’s theory in his excellent book Deep Work: as professionals our most valuable resources include attention and focus. These are the precise qualities that are under siege from social media. Those who can resist these distractions and cultivate depth are at a professional advantage.

Quitting won’t work for everyone, but it’s always possible to reconsider your own approach

I’m currently on maternity leave, which in some ways has made leaving social media easier, although on the other hand it has risked making me feel more cut off from my profession (and my friends). I’ve countered this through my deliberate efforts to connect on a one-to-one basis.

I don’t foresee this will affect my work significantly when I return next month. As a trusts and major donor fundraiser, I’m able to perform my job without heavy social media use, which I appreciate is not possible in other disciplines. However, there are ways to delineate personal and professional use if you feel it would be helpful.

I hope that my renewed energy and focus on developing meaningful relationships will only be a good thing; although I tended not to connect with donors on social media, the parallels in the skills I’m developing are self-evident.

Finally, it’s always worth questioning the underlying assumptions of our working life. As Newport writes about social media: “These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers.”

If you’re concerned about your social media use, consider reviewing your relationship with it.