Charities are generally dependent on public trust, but the public often misunderstands charities. Communication is key, but, particularly at the moment when charities are under intense scrutiny, some find themselves in an impossible position.
An example of this is in attempting to improve conditions whilst working with existing companies, partners or conditions and at the same time presenting a public face that can seem at odds.
The latest example of this is the criticism that the RSPCA has faced for ‘double standards’ in saving a seal whilst also certifying fish farms that shoot seals. This is a complex issue that involves the humanity of leaving a stranded seal to die and the ‘realpolitik’ of attempting to improve fisheries standards.
‘Marina’ the seal trapped by a three-tonne boulder at Port Talbot was rescued, somewhat publically, and given the poor animal was in distress, it would seem cruel to leave her to die. It would be a harsh person that faulted the RSPCA for attempting – and succeeding – to free the seal.
However, at the same time, the RSPCA has been accused of endorsing the culling of seals in Scotland in that it assesses, and certifies, several Scottish salmon farms that protect their fish by pest control measures – the pests here being seals.
Salmon farms have had their issues too, but should the RSPCA say they will not accredit and potentially let conditions decline, or engage with them and be in an active dialogue?
To some the former, to others the latter – depending whether purity of purpose trumps practical improvement or not. How ‘pure’ is, of course, a monster that keeps needing to be fed – and whilst clearly an organisation must have firm principles to guide it, few are faced with the dilemmas that they so readily criticise.
The problem for the RSPCA, and all charities, is that this debate is played out in the public eye, and a public that wants quick simple photogenic solutions. This is truly a balancing act, where helping a little can lead to more criticism than not at all.
And this reminds me of the story of Kevin Carter. The photojournalist was covering the famine in the South Sudan in 1993 and took a picture known as 'The Vulture and the Little Girl'. Cater took the shot, and according to his report chased the vulture away and ensured that the child (actually a boy) was well enough to travel on to a food station. Carter, however, faced accusations that he should have done more, and the public reaction haunted him to his death.
This occurred in 1993 – before the internet and social media. One can only wonder what the result would be today.
Were the public right to criticise a man who had helped expose a humanitarian issue? The RSPCA faces similar, if less dramatic, censure for doing ‘something’ but not ‘everything’. If this is the standard that UK charities are judged by, then at some point many will fail. And that really dopes help nobody.