The controversies of 2015 should not have come as a surprise to fundraisers, says Becky Slack. There’s much that can be done to ensure future critical stories don’t cause as much damage.
What a year 2015 has been for fundraising. From false accusations that direct mail was directly responsible for the suicide of a pensioner, to tabloid journalists going undercover and exposing dodgy fundraising operations, there was a multitude of negative publicity that led to a decrease in donations, a dent in trust and confidence, and the introduction of more draconian (self) regulation.
While some of these stories exposed poor practice, others turned out to be based on flimsy or little evidence, or were simply false. But, shoddy journalism aside, charities do not always help themselves when it comes to responding to negative coverage. All too often they stick their heads in the sand or run for the hills, hoping it will go away. It won’t.
It is disappointing when organisations that are supposed to fight injustice and advocate for others can’t stand up for themselves. When I’ve spoken to charities about why their response to criticism hasn’t been stronger, I’ve been given various different excuses – the favourite one being “we weren’t expecting it”.
This simply doesn’t wash. I’ve been writing about the reputational risks of fundraising for a decade. During this time we’ve had numerous stories on face-to-face, direct mail, telephone fundraising, not to mention admin costs and chief executive salaries. If this latest bout of stories was unexpected then that worries me. Why aren’t fundraisers going through their strategies and assessing aspects of their work that might result in negative coverage? Fundraisers should be identifying vulnerabilities and putting plans in place to help prevent those risks from being realised and to minimise damage if they are.
This fundraising/comms risk management strategy needs to be completed in partnership with the PR team and shared with all relevant internal stakeholders, including the trustee board and fundraising agencies, to ensure that if and when the proverbial does hit the fan then everyone is prepared. This will prevent charities from having to scrabble around trying to figure out what their line is at the last minute, which is what seems to have happened in many of the organisations caught up in this year’s media storms. Indeed, I’d wager that very few Fundraising Magazine readers even know who their PR team is, and fewer have actually sat down and discussed strategy with them.
Others have said that they find it difficult to respond to these stories because journalists only print a line or two from their statements, which doesn’t present the full picture. True, but the story itself is only one way in which charities can respond. Social media, an organisation’s own website, letters to donors – these can also be used to counter negative perceptions.
Yet when looking at the digital tools used by some of the charities implicated in the stories this summer there appears to be little information shared. With the exception of Oxfam, I could find no full, detailed response to allegations of poor fundraising practice; there was limited information available about how these organisations fundraise, their reasons for using particular techniques and agencies; and all in all very little to ease concerned donors who might be wanting to find out more about why their favourite causes have been caught up in controversy. So much for transparency and accountability.
Charities are not immune to scrutiny. If you aren’t willing to stand up and account for the way in which you fundraise then perhaps you shouldn’t be using those techniques. It’s up to you to explain why it is you do what you do. If you don’t or can’t, then don’t be surprised when more stories hit the headlines.
Becky Slack is the founder and managing director of Slack Communications, and a former editor of Fundraising Magazine