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When donations fall foul of ethics

The news that the Royal British Legion has accepted a (likely multi-million pound) donation from Tony Blair raises an interesting question.  At what point does charitable purpose outweigh ethical considerations when trying to do good?

In an age marked by expense scandals, cash for questions, corporate collapse and unchecked obsession with financial growth, transparency is hugely important.  Seemingly, so is the need to be seen to be ethical in our approach to almost everything.  But in the case of charities where do we draw the line?  And who does the drawing?

Mr Blair is a global political figure, famous and infamous in almost equal measure and his wealth (certainly of late) is derived from that fact.  He is the credited author of the New Labour movement and his forthcoming memoires are bound to sell well (probably a serious understatement).


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Some critics would have us believe that accepting a donation from this income means a charity is overtly supporting Mr Blair and therefore Labour. The Charity Commission’s guidelines (CC9) state that:

“A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member (in this context we mean personal or party political views).”

It’s obvious (to me anyway) that the Royal British Legion is not attempting to influence political decisions or unduly benefit from them by accepting this donation.  And this is where the question of ethics gets a little messier and more subjective.

Back in 2004 when Breakthrough Breast Cancer refused to accept a £1m approach from Nestlé the cause and effect relationship was a bit more obvious.  Nestlé stood accused of promoting unsafe baby milk powder in developing countries and by default undermining breast-feeding as a healthy alternative (according to Patti Rundall, then Policy Director of Baby Milk Action).

In Mr Blair’s case, the link is perhaps more subjective.  It is being argued by some that one of the most important charities which supports ex-service personnel and their families is taking money from the very person who sent thousands to war in the first place.

Knowing Mr Blair is a man of faith, the literary cynic in me can’t help but think of Chaucer’s Pardoner who offered people forgiveness and redemption in return for a donation to the church.  But I think that would be an unkind conclusion to draw and I’m certainly not qualified to judge the level of someone else’s guilt.

It’s simpler than this.  Who does the charity exist to support?  Whilst all supporters are important, a very vocal minority should not direct policy surely?  And that absolutely includes me.

Yes, some people will find this donation distasteful and even upsetting but the reality is that the Royal British Legion will be able to build an entire rehabilitation centre with the money.  Not just pay for a nurse or a piece of equipment but build an entire facility which will help many service personnel now and in the longer term.

I think Chris Simpkins, director-general of the Royal British Legion summed up his situation nicely when he said the charity was in an “almost no win situation”.  He has to consider the feelings and opinions of his supporters and beneficiaries and was aware of the controversy this donation was likely to cause.

But the charity’s purpose is clear and by accepting this donation they are in a much better position to be able to do exactly what it is they are supposed to do.  They haven’t broken any laws or regulations and Simpkins has repeatedly stated that the charity does not support any political party or indeed concern itself with political decision-making.

Because it doesn’t impact on my ethics, the charity’s decision is a no-brainer for me.  But that’s not fair to those who genuinely feel upset about this donation.  I just hope we can all agree that the charity will have to sell a mountain of poppies in November to recoup over £4m so perhaps the end does justify the means.

The learning therefore might be that we all need to keep an eye on the bigger picture (as charities and supporters), but that we should genuinely acknowledge the need of people to vent their spleens or shed a few tears first.  I think it was my first English teacher who told me that nothing in life worth having was ever easy to get…

Kevin is the Founder of Bottom Line Ideas, a serial volunteer and Trustee


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