This week’s press coverage of the Presidents Club has cast light into yet another dark corner of society. The initial story in Tuesday’s Financial Times shocked. The stories that continue to emerge appal.
The catalogue of awful behaviour is an extreme example but not a one-off. Anyone who has attended or worked at a charity ball will recognise much of it. Many women working in fundraising will have followed the revelations and thought ‘me too.’ As one female fundraiser put it to me: “Lots of people seem to be shocked that this sort of behaviour happens at charity events. [But] it’s rare to go an entire event without hearing ‘how much for a strip?’ while selling raffle tickets.”
Like many of the stories we have heard in recent months, this is about rich and influential men and the power they wield. Over the past decade, government cuts have hit charities, dramatically slowing growth and increasing the need to look elsewhere for funding. Major donors can smell their desperation. In some cases, their gift could be the difference between a charity being able to fund vital services or having to fold. The money is held, tantalisingly out of reach, like food before a starving person. Life or death. What would you do for it?
Those wealthy individuals and organisations with the ability to give significant sums relish this dynamic. They greedily lap up the solicitations of fundraisers labouring under ever-more-demanding donation targets. Charity balls, with partners left at home, are an opportunity for some men to behave appallingly, safe in the knowledge no-one will dare say anything. The young, usually female, staff who serve their tables have simple instructions: keep guests happy, drinks flowing, and wallets open. Their bosses tell them to go the extra mile, do whatever it takes to get that donation. The implications are clear.
This sort of behaviour is treated as part and parcel of the job – a ritual to be endured for the greater good
For those whose job it is to pry money from the hands of rich, tragic men, it can be a humiliating ordeal. “The theme of one party meant I had to wear a hat, which a man gave me a £100 donation in exchange for,” one events fundraiser told me. “The rest of the table then started making jokes about how much they’d have to pay to get the rest of my clothes off.” Another remarked on the amount of times she had been asked if she ‘comes with’ the auctioned luxury hotel stay. Casual enquiries as to whether people working at events are prostitutes and how a donation-for-services might be facilitated are commonplace.
You will not be surprised to discover that no-one I spoke to had complained formally. This sort of behaviour is treated as part and parcel of the job – a ritual to be endured for the greater good. I have seen for myself the hushed conversations the day after an event, heard people implored ‘you should complain.’ But no one truly expects it to happen. The relationship between the donor and the charity is the most important thing, the rest is a means to an end.
Charities in the UK do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances, stepping in to areas that the state will not or cannot help. The toxic culture at some of these events is imported from the industries that wield money and power and buy the expensive tables and auction items. But it is beyond time that the people employed by charities were treated with some respect. An end to men-only events and the hostess culture that goes with them, together with a formal whistle-blowing procedure that involves the employers of those who attend these events, would be a good start.