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.

Faith, hope and climate change

All the news about climate change has been getting me down lately. I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling this way. Becoming a parent has intensified this feeling; it turns out all the cliches are true.

This bad news is one of the many factors that has influenced my decision to quit social media. It had become my main source of news, and given that the algorithms of these platforms favour content that evokes strong negative emotions – such as fear – I decided I was better off without this in my life.

I wanted to be informed without being skewed towards fear. The mainstream news, however, does love its apocalyptic headlines.

Yes, things are bad and the world needs to do more and faster. But as is always the case with stories like this, there is more nuance than first appears. I’ve sought out some positive stories about progress towards changing the world, and have listed some of these below.

The good news I’ve found online

The change I’ve seen in my short lifetime

In my early twenties (I’m now 34) I was passionate about the environment and combating climate change, and was involved in activism and various protests (all legal in my case; I never had the guts to risk arrest). I could also be quite annoying. I believed that evil commercial companies were destroying the planet and the future lay in “alternative” energy sources.

My politics are still left-leaning, but now that I’m older I feel as if I’m better at seeing more of the complexity and uncertainty in the world. Companies are not inherently evil. Many are actively working to make the world a better place. And the world is also improving in many ways. As is clear from some of the links above, renewable energy is no longer on the fringes.

Increasingly, those in power are recognising that the choice between improving the environment and safeguarding the economy is false. These two priorities are converging, and in my view that’s good news for everyone.

The future is uncertain, and always will be

The idea that the future might not be good, or hopeful, or full of opportunity, is a terrible one, whether you are a parent or not.

But then again, I realise I’m naive for wanting certainty about the future. Here in the developed world, it’s easy to fall for the illusion that the world is safe. But really, it never has been. Previous generations have had to deal with the uncertainty and danger of the World Wars and the Cold War. Extreme poverty and disease are still a reality for many. Even we in our safe Western homes can be reminded of our frailty by natural disasters, disease or bereavement.

The world can be scary. But recognising its past dangers and uncertainties can make the uncertainty we face now easier to accept – and help us appreciate beauty and joy where we find it.

What does this mean for those of us who work in charity?

Most charity workers don’t work for environmental charities: this sector is very small. However, we are all fighting against forces that sometimes feel insurmountable: whether it be the mysteries of a particular disease, the extent of poverty or disaffection, or the cruelty of others.

The mass mobilisations that helped end World War Two, and fixed the hole in the ozone layer, could not have happened without on-the-ground activism (although the underlying threats that could lead to similar events have never completely disappeared). Whether that activism is political, or simply takes the form of spreading kindness, we are all trying to bring out the best in people, form loving communities, and prevent future suffering.

Throughout my late twenties and early thirties, I put climate change to the back of my mind. I still recycled and tried to be a good citizen, but was relieved to focus on other matters that felt less insurmountable.

But the recent news, coupled with my new role as a parent, have brought my concerns crashing back to the forefront of my mind. It’s pointless to try and hide away from the world’s realities, and I would be doing my daughter a disservice if I tried to shield her when she is old enough to understand them. But although the human race faces serious risks and challenges, there is plenty to be optimistic about.

There’s nothing particularly new or original about my viewpoint, but I hope sharing my thoughts, and my hope, may help others in all their vital work.