BLOG: Charities must defend themselves – as long as their actions are defensible

‘Sector warned to put its house in order’, ‘organisations named and shamed for cynical call centre tactics’, ‘fat cats exposed’. Which poor miscreants do these headlines possibly refer to? Bankers maybe? Estate agents?

These headlines offer just a taste of the opprobrium directed against the fifth estate over the past year. Many in the sector have thrown their hands up in dismay at the perceived intensification of media criticism, feeling that charities are not so much being held to account as being brutally picked apart.

The challenge for the sector is this: yes, the sector needs to defend itself – but only where its actions are defensible. Charities need to protect their reputations but this will only be possible if they do not shy away from asking difficult questions about how they operate, raise and spend money, and who they partner with.

Of course, some of the sticks being used to beat the sector are, it must be said, rather brittle. An (admittedly cursory) look at a few of the ‘greatest hits’ that are trotted out on a depressingly regular basis shows this to be the case.

Chief executive pay is too high. Really? This is not normally a case of a part-time head of some local community organisation trousering a six figure salary. Instead, it is big money paid for a big job. As Oxfam pointed out on its blog (and good on it for sticking up for itself), its chief executive has responsibility for 5,000 employees, 2,000 volunteers and a £360 million pound budget. This is a job for a seasoned and experienced professional, not a well-intentioned amateur.

There are too many charities. Not necessarily. Yes, one doesn’t need to be an avid charity-watcher to observe that there is no shortage of not-for-profit organisations with the word ‘cancer’ in their names. But are they really indistinguishable? Do they fund the same kind of treatment or research? Do they all focus on the same geographical area? Do they focus on the same kind of cancer? (Answers on a postcard, please).

Charities have become too preoccupied with campaigning. This seems to stem from some vague notion that, by spending time and money on campaigning, charities have somehow lost touch with the ‘real business’ of service delivery, research and so on. Not only is this historically questionable (Britain has a long tradition of voluntary sector agitation), it is also illogical. Can we really tell a homelessness charity, for example, that it should alleviate the impact of rough sleeping while doing and saying nothing about policies that cause or exacerbate it in the first place?

So, yes, charities should stick up for themselves where they can. The key phrase is ‘where they can’. This might not always be the case and sometimes there will be a need to take brave decisions. PR is not a quick fix and is not there to gloss over, cover up or otherwise ‘spin’ bad policies and decisions. The fact of the matter is this: even in the hands of a savviest of comms strategists and a crack team of press officers, dubious expenditure is still dubious expenditure, and a rapacious fundraising strategy is still a rapacious fundraising strategy. Charities need to stand tall and speak loudly – but the occasional glance in the mirror wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Alex Goldup, The PR Office

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