The term 'charity' has always evoked a mixed bag of emotions. Some take offence at being considered a 'charity case' where as others feel better about themselves because they are 'doing something for charity.' However, this year, more so than any other, the term, along with the entire charity sector, has taken a nosedive into negativity. For the first time in my life I have been cautious about mentioning socially what I do for a living because of the negative response I get.
Much of this ill feeling has been brought about by the media who have cast up everything from chief executive pay to fundraising techniques for the public's attention. They are right to highlight bad practice and we at Lepra, as an international charity, have been just as outraged as members of the public at some of the dubious actions taken by bigger charities in an attempt to garner more funds. However, as a medium sized organisation that has and always will adhere to the Code of Fundraising Practice, we have felt the full force of the punishment along with those guilty parties and it doesn't look like we're going to be let out of the naughty corner any time soon.
That's why, on the International Day of Charity, I wanted to ask whether the good NGOs are actually doing enough to defend themselves against this negative tide and should we all be doing a lot more to change public opinion?
As a sector, we've been burying our heads in the sand and hoping that the negative press and public opinion will soon subside but it's been a year and the angst and anguish doesn't seem to be getting any better. The longer there is a misconception about the work we do, the fewer funds there are being brought in and, as a result, fewer lives are being changed. We all know that fundraising relationships are difficult to build and can be destroyed in seconds.
Recently I sat in on a focus group to understand what prompts people to support charities. An overriding view was that international organisations were less trustworthy because donors cannot directly see where the money is going. They also doubted the impact of the work as the issues of poverty still persist after decades of overseas programmes. All of these unknowns seem to add up to further speculation, concern and scepticism that are leaving our causes out in the cold with few left to support them. A demonstration of this was shown last week when The Mail on Sunday claimed success in their efforts of reducing the UK's foreign aid budget by millions. Notice the word foreign - yet again international NGOs taking the hit.
It seems we are poorly positioned in the charity sector fighting not only against the general mistrust in charities, but the negative ideas around international work too.
To remedy this we need to bridge that knowledge gap and restore the British public's faith in overseas aid as well as the charity sector as a whole. We need to shout about the difference we are making, show where the money is going and explain why international charity work is so vital.
How do we do that? While many of us are tackling neglected diseases, providing clean water and addressing gender equality in developing countries, we cannot expect that great work we do to filter through and alter the public perception all by itself. Perhaps we need to toot our horns a little louder, challenge these cynical attitudes together and restore public faith in the good we're doing so that it stops damaging our ability to achieve life-changing work in the places that really need it.
I wonder if a collective communications campaign could be that first step, perhaps it's not but I'm putting the question out there - what can we do?