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.