The Daily Mail's latest attack on JustGiving was way off the mark, but the sector has to take more action to head off future criticism, says David Ainsworth.
Yesterday the Daily Mail launched another attack on the charity sector. This time, it levelled its guns at JustGiving, the fundraising website, which takes 5 or 6 per cent of each donation to provide its service.
Now, JustGiving is arguably a bit pricy. The sector itself has argued against its costs before. But when it began, it was an absolute breath of fresh air.
I remember the days before JustGiving. It involved going round with a crumpled paper form asking for 10p a mile, and keeping an Excel spreadsheet when that technology became available. It cost the charity a lot more than 6 per cent because it did not usually result in much Gift Aid, and because a sizeable proportion of the buggers who promised you money just never coughed up. It also cost those of us raising sponsorship days of effort. It was ridiculous.
I’m not sure what alternative to JustGiving the Daily Mail would support. Would it prefer going round with a crumpled sheet of paper? Or perhaps it would like to pay for the costs of collecting that money itself.
Ideally, I suppose it would like the money for the technology to just emerge out of thin air, or for someone to provide it out of the goodness of their heart. From the sector’s point of view, these are also preferable options, hampered only by one tiny flaw: they will not happen.
JustGiving has published its own robust defence, and you might as well read that rather than listening to me:
Every two years or so, there is a spike in media interest in how JustGiving operates. Today, it was the turn of the Daily Mail, which questioned our fees, and the fact that we pay market rates for the people who work for the company.
Our response to those questions remains the same: charities deserve the best. More charities, fundraisers and, more recently, crowdfunders choose JustGiving than any other platform because they raise more, net of fees, than cheaper or free alternatives.
We firmly believe that the best way to deliver a consistently great, and continuously improving, fundraising experience for all our users is to operate as a for-profit, for-good organisation. JustGiving helps good causes raise more money, and grows faster than others, precisely because we make a profit and plough it (all of it) back into making our service better. We do a better job also because we hire great talent, and pay market rates. In the real world, engineers, product managers and data scientists do not work for free.
The problem for the sector is what to do about this. Raging quietly to ourselves about how awful the story is, while comforting, is unlikely to help in the long term.
In the end, you can’t really blame the Daily Mail for this. Its job is to write stories which appeal to its readers, and it’s succeeded. The Column of Shame wouldn’t exist unless people liked reading it, and this story wouldn’t exist unless it created a pleasant sense of outrage in Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
The Daily Mail is a bit like the spider wasp, which paralyses its victims and then injects its larvae into them, to eat the unfortunate victim from the inside out. We’d prefer if it didn’t exist, but we can’t expect the wasp to go vegetarian by itself.
The problem is the readers. The public don’t really understand how charities work, and resent the unavoidable fact that you can’t do anything in the sector without incurring support costs. Good support saves money down the line, and helps beneficiaries as a result, but it doesn’t sound good in a story, and so the sector has avoided talking about it and left a void which is now being filled by the Mail.
The problem is that by leaving it to the Mail, the sector leaves itself open to this sort of partial, unfair, ill-researched story. If all its readers already understood JustGiving’s business model, and were being told nothing new, then the story wouldn’t pass the “So what?” test, and would never have been printed.
I’m not throwing rocks at JustGiving here. They’re part of a wider sector which is facing criticism. But charities in general have an understanding gap with the public, and it needs to be addressed.
I’d like charities to employ a three-pronged approach to this. First, don’t do anything you’re ashamed of. Second, if criticised, push back robustly. Don’t waffle about administration and ratios and market rates, offer a clear and passionate defence. And third, don’t wait until someone attacks. Get out there and fight before the fight comes to you.
There’s a maxim I was taught in journalism school: it’s your job to be understood.
If people don’t understand you, that’s your fault. It doesn’t matter if they’re idiots, and they weren’t paying attention properly, and everyone else understands. It’s still your fault. If one person doesn’t get it, it isn’t clear enough.
The public ought to understand your model. If they’ve given you money, they ought to know what they’ve bought into. If they don’t understand, in large numbers, then in the end that’s your fault.
It’s charities job to speak clearly about themselves and their sector. If misunderstandings exist, that’s because you haven’t been clear enough.