It feels at the moment that the charity sector is under attack and that we are being pulled from one headline to another. There is a storm, perhaps even a crisis, which it can be tempting to simply weather until the media move on to the next thing. It is clearly infuriating to see some newspaper headlines that supposedly highlight charity failings, but that fail to tell the whole story and apparently wilfully misunderstand what is really going on. As a sector we could be forgiven for feeling powerless in the face of such unrelenting scrutiny.
So far the charity sector is not unified in its response. Its "leaders" have taken different approaches to solving the apparent problems raised. It appears that professional bodies have focused more on how to handle communications rather than rooting out bad practice. High profile figures like Dame Esther Ranzten, whose track record in charitable work is exemplary, have lectured the sector on the need to admit failings. All the while public sympathy moves a little further from being in full support of charities and their need to raise funds, towards a more critical view of us as being money making machines that employ well paid individuals with a ruthless streak.
Despite the newspaper headlines, the true picture is that almost all charities operate skilfully and entirely ethically. These charities raise funds through direct relationships with supporters and employ staff who develop personal relationships with them in order to identify those who need their services and not only to ask for funding. The charity sector prides itself on being as "business-like" as possible, even though what it does is not business but a mission for social good. There are many in the sector who are angry and frustrated at the implication from some that being paid a salary to do good is wrong and greedy and somehow not how a "proper" charity should operate.
There is also a deep frustration that practices proven to be of value elsewhere in society, like targeting your market and taking a professional approach to so doing, is seen as something that should be denied to charities. It feels to many in the charity sector that they should not only operate with one hand tied behind their back, but that they should also be denied a wage for doing their job.
Charities can take the initiative and consider some key messages which explain the reality, but which also acknowledge what needs to change. Here are my suggestions:
1. Charities are there to do good. To achieve this aim they rely on funding from a range of sources, commonly individuals who have a direct personal connection with the "cause".
2. Charities have a duty to operate in the most effective and efficient way possible, because the money raised is donors' money.
3. Running a charity costs money and, unless you have a trust fund or have costs under written by a larger body, then so called administrative costs are a fact of life. It is the duty of a charity to spend on its purpose, but it often has to invest in things like fundraising and infrastructure if it is able to grow and develop to reach more people.
4. All charities, large and small, are governed by trustees and it is they who have ultimate responsibility for how we are run. They agree budgets; agree plans for delivery and growth, and they appoint the Chief Executive to deliver. When things go wrong the first question that should be asked is "what were the Trustees doing".
5. When things do go wrong it is staff in charities, who are often donors themselves, who can be the most critical and who are most anxious to fix things.
I hope that a year from now we will look back on this period as a turning point. As a time when our sector met the challenge raised by some bad practices by rooting them out. I hope that future polling will show that the public appreciates our response and that trust and confidence is on the rise.