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 The report’s authors suggest that the “Halo Effect” might be a factor: explaining that because “charities rely on an outdated belief that because they are a charity, everything they do must be beneficial.”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”.

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.