Attack is the best form of defence

11 Dec 2013 Voices

Rosie Chapman suggests the sector needs its own set of CSR principles.

Rosie Chapman suggests the sector needs its own set of CSR principles.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Charity Finance suggesting large charities could do more to describe their corporate social responsibility. As news of Panorama’s programme into Comic Relief’s investment policies fills the Twittersphere, some of the areas I covered are increasingly relevant.

I argued that however well documented the public good that charities deliver, they tend to say far less about their role as living exemplars of ‘good organisations’. Strangely, unlike their corporate equivalents, large charities actually show a bizarre reticence when describing their CSR. Is it because - to date - they didn’t think it applied to them? With a history of embracing environmental and sustainability policies, they remain muted about what their social responsibility means in terms of their ethics, their role in the marketplace and as employers.   


Would Comic Relief have been so attacked if it had an ethical investment policy? As Sam Younger, Charity Commission chief executive, said when asked to comment: "If a charity says 'we need to invest for the maximum financial return' that is right," "If they go on to say 'we therefore can't have an ethical investment policy', that's wrong."

Equally, could charities do more to use ethical supply chains?  When fast food franchises trumpet theirs, why are charities so silent?


Large charities have an inconsistent approach to the use of intern volunteers and zero-hours contracts.  I know this confuses government officials, especially those working on commissioning issues who are not sure where the sector stands on the issues.  Equally, how many charities have signed up to the living wage? While the number of sign-ups are high for charities with largely admin roles there are depressingly few signatures from care providers. How many charities encourage their staff by payroll giving, and actively enable them to take up trustee roles and general volunteering?


Researching my earlier article I couldn’t find any obvious examples of larger charities supporting and working with smaller charities, rather than competing with them.  Does social responsibility mean larger charities have an obligation to collaborate with smaller, niche charities?

In an age of austerity, there’s even more pressure for charities’ resources to be used in the best way possible.  The Panorama programme is yet another illustration of the increased expectations on charities’ broader social responsibility. Not, as with corporates, as an add-on but as an essential part of their terms of engagement.  

It would also be fascinating to evaluate if charities with a strong record of social responsibility do better than others when they fundraise.

More fundamentally, do charities actually know where to start? CSR is a wide, and growing, field. Isn’t it time we recognised the impact and, as a sector, came up with an integrated set of CSR principles that are tailored for us? Given the impact of the reputational harm their absence can cause, is this not a critical use of charitable resources?