Do charities need to clean up their act, or a helping hand?



It seems that over the past few years, and in particular the last few months, controversy has dogged the charity sector. Formerly well-respected and revered pillars of our community have been dragged under the spotlight whilst their practices, policies and sheer existence have been called into question.

With the suicide of Olive Cooke last year, February’s warning from the Charity Commission chief warning charities to stop hounding donors, and the True and Fair Foundation’s recent exposure of the inefficiency of high street charity shops, it seems that each and every channel used by charities is under scrutiny.

There are claims that 92-year old Olive Cooke was hounded by charities as a result of her data being bandied around, and that she would receive up to 3000 requests for money each year. A partnership between Age UK and EON was dissolved after claims that millions were made by promoting tariffs to pensioners which were not the most reasonable on the market. These abuses of mailing lists and data show a shocking disregard for the motive behind most people’s engagement with charities – to support worthy causes – and unsurprisingly the shockwaves are still being felt.

Likewise the recent focus on ‘chugging’ – the practice of approaching the public on the street has been questioned, not merely because it is becoming far too prevalent, yet also because many people are shocked to learn that the people doing it are not volunteers, but paid workers, often not only earning commission on signing people up, but also on the continuation of their donations – a tactic which, just like gym membership, probably reaps a fair amount of revenue from apathy, forgetfulness or general lack of organisation. Yet on the flipside, especially in the harder economic times recently experienced, it could be said that it is a charity’s right to adopt more ‘commercial’ tactics in order to allow them to continue their good work.

However, even if this stance is taken, there are still critics of the way charities function. Recent work by the True and Fair Foundation has shown that the majority of high street charity shops achieve a very small profit margin, despite assistance from the government in the form of tax breaks and donated goods to sell. In a landscape where the high-street is increasingly dominated by cash-rich multiples, it is understandable why independent traders may envy the cheaper business rates extended to charity shops.

Nobody can dispute or begrudge the amazing work volunteers and salaried workers do to ensure that the shops stay functional, yet is there a call for a revision of the way charity shops are run? In the face of competition from low-cost retail outlets and the trend towards online shopping, is it time to rethink the approach to how charities operate their retail arms? eBay has been demonized for the low amount of Corporation Tax it pays in the UK, so isn’t there an initiative to be struck where – in some way or form – individuals are encouraged to list unwanted items on eBay with the proceeds going to a specified charity, and postage somehow subsidized by the eBay/government initiative, along with some incentive for the individual? This way items which people may not be inclined to take to a charity shop and instead put in the bin will be on sale for charity, and those which would otherwise be tucked away in one solitary charity shop are visible for buyers around the world, and the burden of the logistics is outsourced.

A recent report called “A Hornet’s Nest” claims that one in five charities spends less than 50% of their revenue on charitable activity – i.e. doing what the public perceives their purpose to be. To leap on a bandwagon and criticize charities for not being able to attribute 100% of their income to front-line activity is both unreasonable and short-sighted – anyone who understands how businesses are run can appreciate that there are naturally overheads in achieving the end goal, and to criticize them in this way is akin to those complaining in restaurants that something ‘costs half the price in a supermarket’ –  yet on top of the recent controversies, is it time for a rethink of how charities operate, how they approach the market, and how they are supported? With Cancer Research UK recently taking an ‘opt-in only’ policy towards contacting their donors, there is clearly a shift to more ‘responsible’ behaviour from charities – how big and pronounced will this shift be?

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One Comment

Dan J Rose

I agree with you to a point, there is a marketing issues within the industry, but the main issue is the policing – they were so quick to create a new fundraising regulator when the initial Charity Commission isn’t an efficient and effective regulator – I don’t know how they expect the new regulator to work any better – they should have merged the functions and required stronger policing of the issues.



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