General Charity

Classic Charity Christmas Myths…by Uncle Bob

Christmas is a time for catching up with old friends, meeting new people and trekking miles across the country to visit the long distant relatives who won’t speak to you all year if you don’t pop by (even though you’d be quite happy if they didn’t speak to you all year…guilt – and Mum – say you must go).

This Christmas, while embarking on all of the above, I’m sure I’m not the only charity worker who experienced what I like to call the ‘Classic Christmas Charity Myths’. They’re also known as the ‘Random guy in the pub musings’ and the ‘Obnoxious guy on first date main course conversations’ (true story).  They included:

‘Oh you work for a charity? What, and you get paid?’

‘I heard that out of every £1 donated, only 11p actually gets spent on the cause itself’

‘Aha, so you’re a Chugger…’

‘Do you not feel like you should donate your salary back to your employer?’

‘You volunteer for a different charity? Isn’t that a bit disloyal?’

All of this is fine. I’m not angry. Just disappointed. I believe it is the fault of charities themselves that questions like this are still being asked. We must educate the public – as well as ask for their support – about how we work, what we do, why we do it and where their money goes. We must be honest and bold about how we can do better and why we behave in certain ways now, but could soar given the chamce. Dan Pallotta says it much better than me.

So I’m not bothered that my oldest school friend, my friends new boyfriend and Uncle Bob all contributed to the above conversations happening over the festive period. I’m more bothered that I didn’t say anything. And that their opinion is still the same.

But what was I to do?!

If I’d have said what I really thought (PLEASE tell me how to work for free and still pay the mortgage, if only 11p reaches the cause then do not give that charity your money, there are over 200 different roles in most large charities so no, I’m not a chugger, maybe I do donate some of my salary back to my employer – and also see my first point – and who ever just had one thing they’re passionate about?) and tried to engage these people in a conversation about how charity really works, it would have all got uncomfortable, a row would probably have ensued (people get VERY passionate about all of the above) and it would have just been a bit unpleasant. And not very festive. But mainly, nothing would have changed. Because most charities do not include changing opinion on the above in any of their strategies so I as a lone charity ranger, bottle of sloe gin permanently in hand, felt underprepared.

A 2012 report by Ipsos Mori shows that while more people than ever are using a variety of different charitable services, the public is concerned about a variety of fundraising methods being used and the operational activities in the sector (high salaries, bonuses, administration costs etc). Few organisations have responded to this information with an open, detailed plan aimed at addressing these issues – and the realisation that if we don’t, income will suffer.

Except for one. The RSPCA have launched an ambitious 10 year campaign to change public perception of their work as they approach their 200th birthday. I remember nearly falling off my chair when I read this article. A 10 year plan?! To prepare for an anniversary year? OMG! Go RSPCA!

We will of course see how it pans out and how the results from their work has an impact on that of others but for now, as we start 2014, and I thankfully don’t need to see Uncle Bob for at least 352 days, I’ll be asking myself what can I do to change public perception of the organisations I support, and the sector as a whole? I’ll actively seek out and ask questions of the people at the top of the organisations to make sure I hear the truth from the horses mouth. I’ll share information with supporters about things we’re doing, how we’re spending money, how we made that decision and why. And I’ll encourage other colleagues to do the same. It is only through this, and thinking about public perception throughout all of our work, that opinion will change.

I can’t do it alone though – join me?


Working for a charity isn’t enough

Recently I felt very proud to become trustee at the wonderful Mind Norwich and Central Norfolk. It was recommended I apply to become a trustee to aid my career development and get a better understanding of how charities operate. It has only been a few months but I have learnt so much already and would recommend it to anyone.

I’ve helped other organisations in a variety of volunteering roles – helping with collections, cheering at events, organising events, giving training for free and of course, helping their fundraising. But it is only when I became a trustee that I started to think of myself as a volunteer. It was the first thing I had applied for and gone through a formal process. With the other roles, I just kind of fell in to it – helping a mate out, joining in because I was already going to something or seeing an opportunity on social media and just thinking ‘Yeh, why not’. The formality of the trustee role has really made me think differently about volunteering.

Of course there are all the common reasons of why people are encouraged to volunteer – it makes you feel good, you help people, you meet new people, it looks good on your CV, you develop new skills, the list goes on.

And of course many charity workers volunteer for a variety of projects in a variety of roles. But many don’t – and it is a shame. Not just because they won’t experience all the common benefits listed above, but because volunteering for another organisation will help influence the work they do for the one that pays them.

The things I’ve learnt by being a volunteer have helped me better understand the volunteers of the organisation I work for. Things like how important an induction is, how we must give people appropriate information, how scary it can feel to be the ‘new kid’, how our role must be given context, how a role description often isn’t that helpful, how useful an assigned ‘buddy’ is for asking questions. And it has helped influence my day job in a positive way. I plan better, I think about my communications more, I check volunteers are OK more frequently. Oh, and I say thank you – regularly and with sincerity. Because I now know and understand, what it feels like if those things don’t’ happen. Rubbish. And a bit disappointing.

There’s also the inspiration factor – if you’re inspired enough by a cause to give your time for free, you want to continue being inspired by the charity when you volunteer for them. So we must make sure volunteer roles make best use of peoples skills, engage them with the charity, give them room to grow, make them feel like their making a difference. How many of the roles you are currently looking to fill, meet all of that criteria? I know I’ve been guilty of not meeting that standard in the past – but volunteering myself and going through the experience I currently am is keeping these thoughts fresh in my mind.

Volunteering is not just valuable for those in fundraising – I just had a conversation with a colleague who works extremely closely with non-fundraising volunteers and feels as I do about her role with a branch of the Cats Protection league. She said that by being a volunteer, she understood much better her volunteer’s motivations and how they must feel in different situations. I also think ‘back office’ staff, those in finance, administration, the mail room and so on, could all benefit from volunteering. Thinking about how important they are to the organisation and how we all play a role in giving volunteers a good experience.

If you work for a charity, often people do a ‘Ooooh you must be a great person’ face and deem themselves unworthy for working in a different field. But a job in a charity is still a job – despite your reasons for doing it. It’s not a good enough reason to not do more – particularly when the benefits can help your day to day work so much too.






Question everything – but don’t stop giving

Last night a Panorama show revealed that Amnesty International gave their Director General over £500,000 in expenses and other claims as pay out when she left. They made a near £750,000 loss at their annual Secret Policeman’s Ball in 2012. They pay top staff over £100,000. They also exposed that Comic Relief have invested some of their income in to the arms, tobacco and alcohol industry in order to increase their funds. And that Save the Children censored staffs criticism of the energy industry as they have energy suppliers as corporate partners.

A brief look at the Twitter response to the programme showed what I expected – ‘This is why I don’t give to charity’ and ‘I’m never donating to Comic Relief again’ were common themes. I’m sure there will be supporters of the charities mentioned who wake up this morning and question whether they should cancel their monthly direct debit or buy Christmas cards that give to another organisation next year. And yes a few things could have been handled better at the charities mentioned in the show – but it is for their boards and supporters to hash out.

The damage of the programme will have affected the entire charity industry though and this is what disappoints me. It has fuelled the debate around top charity bosses pay packets and made it seem that charities are very loose at decision making when it comes to spending their donors money. As with a lot of media coverage, this opinion is skewed.

I feel most for the people working at Amnesty International, Save the Children and Comic Relief, that aren’t at board or top management level. Those are the people today who will be fielding calls from supporters who want to know more about the contents of the programme and what is going to be done about it – unless internal communications are super slick, and an all-singing, all-dancing FAQ and script sheet has been produced, staff (as well as supporters) will need answers too.

Working for a charity when they come under public scrutiny is difficult. When you choose a charity to work for, you represent the organisation, you trust it, you become it, what they do is what you do. So when something like Panorama airs about your employer, you will be left reeling. And scared – because if the charity is working in a way you don’t believe in, you’re going to have to find one that does. But then you may have to move away from the cause which you love.

Each of the supporters on last nights show that were either told about their charities ‘wrong-doing’ or revealed it themselves, said they would continue to give. But would start to ask questions. And I hope that this will be a positive legacy of the programme. As supporters, we must ask questions. We must push our charities to work in the way we believe they should, to help the cause in the way it needs to be helped. But we must remember that as with all business, we cannot have all the information, all of the time. So we must utilise opportunities we have for engagement – read the annual report, go to the AGM, attend the open days and meet the staff, volunteer at events. It is this way that we get to truly understand what the charity does, how and why. Pulling out a few bad examples of practice makes a good show but does not do justice to the good that these organisations have done. They have saved lives, they have campaigned for justice and won and they have helped millions of people living in poverty both at home and abroad. If you watched last nights show, go an question the organisation you support – but don’t stop giving to them. Please. They won’t do better without you.