Peter Lewis: Let’s speak up for the sector we serve

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been looking ahead to next year and thinking a lot about our sector; worried about where we are at, how bruised we are all feeling, how we are being presented and how we are representing ourselves.

It is not about individual causes or charities, which are still out there doing fantastic things, day in, day out, but it is about how we as charities as a whole represent themselves or are represented.

In recent weeks this has again been brought to a head in the way some media articles talk about the charity sector. Firstly the Telegraph’s misleading and disingenuous front page article on charity fundraising, sparked by an interview with Lord Grade, and secondly the Daily Mail’s latest ‘investigation’ into university fundraising research.

By the time this article goes to print, we may have seen even more such headlines. It is really frustrating for me, my team at IoF and I’m sure the whole fundraising community that after so much effort to review and improve practices, parts of the media still feel it is open season to run attention grabbing headlines with little or no substance behind them.

But these recent weeks have also shown us examples of how best to respond as charity leaders. I was especially impressed by Mark Goldring, CEO of Oxfam, on the Today programme in mid-November speaking powerfully about the success of their charity shops (including a 22% growth online). It was all thanks to the generosity of the British public and the refocus of Oxfam’s programmes on areas of greatest need, driven by conflicts around the world.

Pressed on the ‘difficult’ questions about spending on overheads, he was open and transparent about the need to spend on management costs and fundraising. Asked about fundraising practices, he fluently spoke about how the whole sector had embraced change over the last two years.

Mark made me proud to work in the same sector as him. He made it absolutely clear that it is only thanks to the generosity of the British public that Oxfam can deliver its work responding to disasters and enabling people to live better lives. Crucially, he spoke with authority not only for his charity, but also for the sector as a whole in a way that not enough leaders have done.

Many charity leaders speak powerfully about the impact of their individual organisation’s work, whether it is fighting homelessness or research into devastating diseases; providing mental health support or reducing the impacts of climate change. But too few then go on to successfully thank the British people for their generosity, are open about how modern charities work, or build the links from their specific cause to the sector more generally.

And this is the vital dialogue that is missing for me about our sector as a whole – talking powerfully about our collective causes. Our end causes are fundamental to people understanding our role and our impact across society. No matter how passionately people talk about things that are generic to the sector – volunteering, commissioning, governance or fundraising – they just don’t connect. Politicians, the media and the general public have a fundamentally emotional response to individual charities, but the generic just doesn’t cut the mustard.

We need more charity leader advocates who can elegantly and eloquently explain our collective charitable objectives; based on making the world less unequal, supporting people to move out of poverty, giving people a better education, researching the cures for disease or supporting people with health problems.

We must do more to collectively engage the government, challenge negative media stories and inspire the public. As we look to the coming year I would urge all charity leaders to accept this challenge and step forward to speak not just for your individual organisation, but for the entire sector we all serve.

Peter Lewis is chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising

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