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Crisis? What crisis? - Oxfam street fundraiser approaching two shoppers
Last updated July 2015

Crisis? What crisis?

Dominic Fox weighs the need for fundraising activities against maintaining the goodwill of the British public. As heated discussion surrounds comments from the fundraising regulatory body, what's the best approach for charities?

The practices and finances of Britain's 160,000 charitable organisations have been transformed in the last decade according to the latest NCVO Almanac, with an income of £40 billion a year. NCVO report that the sector spends £4.9 billion generating funds, or just over 12% of the total budget, employing fundraisers and organising events. The report contends this remains a highly cost-effective use of resources, with every pound spent raising on average £4.20. 44% of adults reported giving money to good causes doing vital charitable work in a typical month.

So it may come as a surprise that charity fundraising has been at the forefront of an all-out tabloid assault on activities by charities in the last month.

The Daily Mail has called for the introduction of a single charity fundraising regulator and for new legislation to prevent charities "bullying and harassing the most generous and vulnerable", arguing that the current regulatory framework is to blame for letting the situation "run out of control". John Spellar, a Labour MP, said that 'Olive's Law' (a reference to poppy-seller extraordinaire Olive Cooke) should be included in the Charities Bill. Chris Grayling, leader of the House of Commons said: "This government will bring forward measures to address issues in the charitable sector."

The Mail led on the story that shoppers' complaints about charity fundraising in Croydon town centre have sparked new measures to restrict their activities. The town has become the 100th place in the country to sign up to a scheme banning charity fundraising 'chuggers' from its streets. Croydon Business Improvement District has introduced measures following complaints from shoppers they were fed up of being "confronted" by the fundraisers.

Civil Society Minister Rob Wilson, back in post after the election and somehow managing to save the Office for Civil Society from the bonfire of the quangos, appeared poised to launch a crackdown to prevent charities preying on older people that could end in legislation. He has demanded fundraising watchdogs the Fundraising Standards Board, the Institute of Fundraising and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association give 'a detailed explanation of the steps they are taking in light of recent events'.

Charity Commission Chair William Shawcross raised the temperature with a speech saying there are serious concerns about the extent and nature of direct fundraising which risk damaging public trust and confidence in charity. He said "I believe this is a crisis for the charity sector that is testing the strength and capacity of self-regulation."

He said the commission's own research suggested that about two-thirds of people felt uncomfortable about some methods of fundraising. "Trustees need to keep in mind how important it is to preserve public goodwill when they are faced with the challenge of raising funds to support the work of their charity." Shawcross said the commission was revising and strengthening its guidance on fundraising and trustees' duties and that a draft version would be published for consultation later this year.

Sir Stephen Bubb, head of ACEVO criticised William Shawcross, saying he expected the regulator to "rise above the noise of the tabloids, and make the public case for charities' work" and accused Shawcross of "following the lead set by lurid coverage in the press. I certainly don't think it is the chair of the Charity Commission's job to court national controversy for the sector he is mandated to support".

The self-regulation of funding is "not working in its current form" and the Institute of Fundraising should consider relinquishing control of the Code of Fundraising Practice, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO said. There was "no doubt in my mind that there is clear public concern over fundraising that deserves to be taken seriously. We cannot write it off as some have sought to do."

Etherington suggested two options for the IoF to consider: either that it should "divest itself of its role in setting the code" or that it should "dramatically overhaul the governance of the code such that it befits a self-regulatory body rather than a trade association". He said the first option might be the more pragmatic one and would create "a clear and comprehensible division between regulator and champion".

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF, responded swiftly. "The politicos will politic, the chatterati can chat, the media may opine, the knights will joust, but here at the institute we have been rapidly taking forward what will really make a difference to the public's trust and confidence in fundraising - strengthening the code and setting up a new compliance regime."

The Minister for Civil Society had the final word by giving the fundraising self-regulation regime "an opportunity to demonstrate that it can work effectively", but warned that the window in which it can do so "may not remain open for much longer. No one should try to deny that there is a problem here or that there are indefensible practices taking place. The Fundraising Standards Board has received as many complaints in the past few weeks as it normally does in an entire year".

The charity sector is facing serious questions from the press and government. It can sometimes feel like we are being attacked from all sides. This can trigger a fight or flight response that is neither appropriate nor helpful. This is not a crisis, but it could become one if not dealt with appropriately.

The work done by the voluntary sector is important, increasingly important as public sector cuts and austerity is set to continue. Our friends remain the great British public. How we handle criticism and challenge, and whether we can learn to work together for the greater good will determine our fortunes with them and others for the next five years.

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