David Ainsworth: The lessons from the Telegraph's latest front page attack

14 Nov 2017 Voices

Lord Grade, chair of the Fundraising Regulator

The latest Daily Telegraph front page is rightly bound to anger the sector, says David Ainsworth, but it reminds us that there are issues which need to be addressed.

So Lord Grade of Yarmouth, chair of the Fundraising Regulator, has given another interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he launches a fresh broadside at those he regulates - this time giving his views on unaddressed mail and enclosures, as well as JustGiving and other platforms.

The interview offers some cause for reflection for Grade, for the Fundraising Regulator, but also for charities themselves.

Lord Grade

To be fair to m’lord, the front page prompted by the interview – ‘Charities dodge begging ban’ – was a fairly heroic reinterpretation of a single year-old piece of information: that the FPS could not stop unaddressed mail. But still, the interview itself is concerning.

First, it appears that a Grade interview – not for the first time – has prompted an official correction from his own organisation, which issued a statement yesterday saying that it was not planning a crackdown on unaddressed mail and enclosures.

And secondly, it is ill-considered in its tone. Grade revisits his view that fundraising is like the "wild west" and that he lies to charities to make them go away. The actual tone here is driven more by the interviewer than Grade himself, but Grade is not helping his cause.

How does a regulator expect to gain the confidence of those it regulates, if its chairman regularly expresses his disapproval in dismissive terms to a newspaper than most fundraisers have an instinctive antipathy towards? How is it wise to announce policy in the pages of a broadsheet?

It is as if he feels that the sector is his enemy, and believes that his job is to keep the peace among a hostile populace – an approach which will not work.

The irony is that I think much of the sector is probably with Lord Grade on some of the narrow, technical issues. Many people would like to see the end of free gifts, designed to provoke guilt, and many of us would probably not be unhappy to see the end of unaddressed mail altogether.

The issue is not so much the policy positions he is taking, as the way he is taking them.

The regulator

Okay, so much for Lord Grade. What about the regulator itself?

I think it’s probably fair to say that the regulator is struggling under the weight of expectation. Obviously, it has been forced today to issue a correction to an interview given by its own chair, which is never a good thing for a regulator to have to do. But this is just the latest symptom.

I think it’s worth remembering that setting up a regulator is extremely hard. If you’re going to do it, you had better have sufficient power and sufficient budget. It also helps to have the support of those you regulate, a helpful chair, and a manageable communications environment.

The staff of the Fundraising Regulator are doing an admirable job, but they are constrained by circumstance. They have to contend with the fiction that they are a self-regulator, when they were in fact imposed on the sector from outside. They have to contend with the fact that they cannot make anyone actually pay to fund them. And they have to deal with the fact that they have relatively limited power to actually influence wrongdoing, and none whatsoever to prevent it. The worst offences in their field are mostly perpetrated not by charities themselves but the professionals they work with, who do not even officially fall within the regulator’s purview.

It would be very hard to make it work, even without a chair who seems bent on alienating the people his organisation needs to work with.

The sector

But all of the above isn’t to excuse charities. It’s worrying that the Telegraph decided to run the front page at all. The story is not strong, to put it mildly, but I'm not convinced of the value of moaning about it. Complaining about the press is like complaining about the weather.

It remains obvious that there remains a serious question mark over the charitable sector, in the minds of the national press and its consumers.

It’s hard to approach this subject fairly because this particular headline was a weak story – an opportunist attack. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Newspapers don’t dig up dirt unless they expect to find some. Journalists don’t write stories they think the public don’t want to read.

As Aidan Warner of NCVO said last week, the press continue to write about fundraising scandals because their readers continue to consume these stories eagerly.

Two years on from the first crisis, the charity sector has still not convinced the public or the newspapers that it is trustworthy.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe so long as the donations keep coming, it doesn’t matter that the top 100 charities are operating in an environment of mistrust. Maybe the newspapers don’t actually reflect the views of their readers, or maybe their readers aren’t the giving public anyway.

But perhaps the Telegraph is not entirely wrong.

I think readers of the Mail and the Telegraph suspect that things have not really changed, and that charities have not learned all the lessons of 2015 – in as much as they have considered the issue at all. This kind of front page is just a gentle reminder to let everyone know that the press have not stopped watching.

The sector's introspection about newspaper coverage has mostly focused thus far on the questions "How can we make it stop?" and "Does it really matter?"

The question "Do we need to change?" seems to have disappeared from view.

Now of course, no one should change because of press scrutiny. The only question that matters, really, is whether you are doing good.

I would argue - and will in greater detail, in another article soon - that charities have become too narrow in their focus. Charities are worried about beneficiaries and winning contracts, rather than society as a whole - and have particularly neglected their supporters and their staff. They have become focused on doing good for a few, not making the world a better place.

The public, rightly or wrongly, expect charities to be ethical in all their dealings, and work for the good of everyone. They do not feel charities should just be mechanisms to benefit a narrow class of people, even though in most cases that it what charities' objects say.

I don't believe this is really what charity staff themselves want, either. But incremental change has led them here.

And so the people smell a rat. Lord Grade is articulating something that many people believe, in language they understand.

In short, the sector faces a fundamental challenge from a public which does not understand what it does. The top 100 charities, in particular, need to show that they have not lost their way.

 

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