This blog by Paul Parrish represents his personal opinions, not those of Aspire.

I'm the Fundraising and Marketing Director for Aspire.  In the light of various media articles and the recent collapse of a major charity, I wanted to jot down my thoughts about the current state of fundraising behaviour in the UK.  I intend this commentary to be as personal as possible because I have very strong views on this and, frankly, I am livid about the behaviour of some of my peers. 

What has happened to the charity sector?

Last year, a 92 year old woman named Olive Cooke threw herself to her death from Clifton Bridge.  She had sold poppies for 76 years and in the previous year had met David Cameron to receive an award for her services to charities.  Yet suffering from depression she chose to take her own life.  It later transpired that she had felt hounded by charities, receiving up to 180 requests for money a month.  Her bank account showed she had 25 direct debits set up to various charities.

It was a tragic case and the charity industry duly began its process of hand wringing and navel gazing.  It looked to its fundraising boards and to quell the outcry began to mumble about tightening up procedures and practices.  But worse was to follow; a Daily Mail journalist went undercover and infiltrated one of the many telephone sales houses that charities contract to ring the public and persuade them to sign up to regular donations.  Nothing wrong in that, but as the journalist was to discover, sales techniques were at best murky and the data being used didn’t conform to the necessary standards of data protection.  As this was coming to light a resourceful member of the public, incensed by the attention his father was receiving from the cold callers, proved that some charities had been selling on their precious data to external organisations to use for generating leads.

Could it get any worse?  Hell, yes.  Kids Company, a groundbreaking charity helping disadvantaged children, went to the wall having received Government Grants worth millions.  Each day that went by seemed to throw up new stories about the organisation. Tales of bullying, astonishing financial mismanagement and even sexual exploitation began to appear.

The reputation of the charity sector has never been so badly undermined. Here are the facts as I see them and if any of the recently named charities think what I have to say is wrong, well, here’s a forum – come and talk.

How charities fundraise

Charities need to raise money.  The work we do and offer to people who really need it - for free - is amazing.  I love charities and I love this society that supports them.  When you work in the charity sector you also discover quite quickly that you have to ask people to give money.  Giving without prompting is not a cultural characteristic of the British.  We are generous, but we do need a nudge.  So for that reason, sending out messages asking for funds, even ringing people, is not, per se, a bad thing.  What has become tainted is how we ask, who we ask and how we get the information on these people. 

Why are charities targeting people like Olive Cooke?  Well, she was vulnerable and would sign up to direct debits.  Now I am not saying charities actively targeted her, but they didn’t apply enough due diligence to ask if the people representing then were conducting the necessary checks to ensure that they weren’t taking advantage.  But if you employ a third party who are incentivised by commissions and will lose contracts if they don’t get results, then their poorly paid staff aren’t going to worry about the morals of who to sign up. 

What charities need to do

I think it is fair to say that regardless of commissions and boards attempting to legislate and exert some sort of code of practice, the real work needs to be done within charities themselves.  What has made a caring profession like charity work become the pariah of the British public?  It is my belief that it is the aggressive work cultures that have been allowed to permeate into the charity sector.  We have gone from a culture of care and respect to a culture that has been infiltrated by senior managers operating a “boiler room” mentality of raising funds at any cost. The reason that these people have got into these positions is that trustee boards are not strong enough to understand and may even applaud these hard sell techniques.  After all, it is the trustee boards that are approving unachievable budgets that are causing the huge stresses in fundraising departments which in turn means that fundraisers are resorting to nefarious practices. 

So it’s time every one wised up and stopped this stupidity and began to get realistic again. Funding need has to be weighed up against reality and the resources that trustees allow fundraising departments to have.  If a trustee board/senior management team is continually pleading “widow’s mite” and not spending money appropriately to resource their fundraisers then their incumbent fundraising teams will be forced to cut corners and raise money at any cost.

People won’t like me saying this, but let’s banish this alpha culture from our charities and get back to what we do well, which is to enthuse people about what we do and make them want to give. I can talk with experience about this cultural backsliding.  I have worked in the charity sector for over 15 years having moved from the hard world of media sales where I worked with a lot of hard-nosed agencies.  It was a dog eat dog world and we expected that as part of the culture.  If you didn’t like that attitude to work you could get out.   I moved to a sector that I thought would exhibit more respect and compassion for both its beneficiaries, supporters and its staff.  I didn’t expect to come across a similar sort of culture.  I won’t shame the organisations that I personally have come into contact with that exhibit the characteristics of high pressure timeshare salespeople.  They know who they are and in their boardrooms one hopes that they are looking at ways to repair the havoc that they have reaped across this wonderful sector of the UK economy. 

My mother’s experience

Sadly, I know what I am talking about (I sometimes wonder if some fundraising directors do). I recently took over power of attorney over my mother’s bank account.  She is 86 years old has Alzheimer’s.  I was devastated when I looked at her bank account to see the amount of charities that she had set up direct debits to – charities that she would never have supported when she was in charge of her full faculties.  I know my mum and I know how she comes across on the phone.  There is no way that telephone sales people could not have been aware of her vulnerability.  As with Olive Cooke, this example amply demonstrates why there are a large number of charities out there who should be ashamed of themselves. Whilst charities are dominated by aggressive trustees employing unsuitable senior managers for this sector then we will not achieve our full potential and we will become a pariah business.

This blog by Paul Parrish represents his personal opinions, not those of Aspire.