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Defending charities 2 – charities must not talk past their critics

Ian MacQuillin | 26 February 2014 | Blogs

Two shields.
Photo by Erik Mclean.

The current media hostility towards charities is the worst for a decade, so says ACEVO chair Stephen Bubb. I can’t say I’d argue. In the 13 years I’ve worked in fundraising as a journalist and comms professional, I’ve seen my fair share of anti-fundraising press, but I’m not sure I’ve seen press or parliamentarians going for charities with such casual viciousness before.

The epitome of this was the way the Daily Telegraph combined with the Public Administration Select Committee to launch a pincer attack over the supposedly high levels of charity ceo salaries that Heinz Guderian would have been proud of. [Incidentally, but far from coincidentally, all the charities cited in the Daily Telegraph’s initial report were overseas aid charities.]

The attack on charities staged by Panorama in December last year – the subject of my last blog – was just another example.


Why your supporters are wealthier than you think... Course by Catherine Miles. Background photo of two sides of a terraced street of houses.

“The Daily Telegraph combined with the Public Administration Select Committee to launch a pincer attack on charities that Heinz Guderian would have been proud of”

At first blanche, exercises such as the querying of the scale of charity staff remuneration or the probity of a relationship between a charity and a corporate partner seem perfectly reasonable exercises in holding charities to account for poor or unethical practice.

Except they aren’t. Because they rest on the unstated assumption that that there is something  fundramentally wrong with this state of affairs in the first place.

For example, Panorama’s castigation of Amnesty International for losing money on an American version of the Secret Policeman’s Ball rests on the assumption that charities should never embark on any fundraising activity unless it is guaranteed to succeed. According to Panorama, charities should never take a risk with their fundraising.

The attack over ceo salaries assumes that it is wrong to pay six figures salaries to charity staff and proceeds from this assumption, without ever arguing for this conclusion.

In technical terms, they beg the question.

As I argued in my last blog about Panorama’s assault on charities last December, it is doubly hard to attempt a rebuttal of these kinds of arguments.

Try to engage with the specific issues and charities appeared to be involved in special pleading: but we got lots of awareness out of our loss-making event; but our ceo is paid a lot less than her contemporaries in the private sector.

Try to deal with the underlying negative assumptions on which these specific allegations are founded and charities come over as defensive, aggressive or ‘not engaging with the issues’.

Talking past the criticism – practical rebuttals to ethical objections

One of the reasons charities so often come across as ‘defensive’ is not because they don’t engage with the issue raised by critics, but because they deal with them in the wrong way, and so talk past the objectors.

This can be most clearly seen in the way the charity sector used to respond to crticisms of face-to-face fundraising in the early to middle part of the last decade. We’re all used to the old shibboleths about ‘chuggers’: they ‘harass’ passersby and guilt trip you into giving. Attempted rebuttals from the charity sector were usually along the lines that face-to-face fundraising brought in younger donors who were not responsive to more traditional fundraising asks and that (in those days) you’d get an RoI of about four or five to one.

“The more charities talked past their critics, the more the critics attacked, the more charities withdrew from engaging”

So here’s the problem. The objections to F2F could be broadly categorized as claiming that using street fundraising is an inappropriate or unethical method of soliciting donations. The attempted rebuttals were claiming that it works. An ethical objection was being countered with a practical response. But being successful doesn’t necessarily make something ethical (though for the avoidance of doubt, I have always thought F2F to be perfectly ethical) and so the criticisms were not being met and tackled head on.

Charities (or rather those representing the charity sector – as charities were often reluctant to defend F2F in public) were talking past their objectors, giving the impression that they were not engaging directly with the issues (even thought this was exactly what they thought they were doing).

When the impasse persisted – when critics objecting to F2F on ethical grounds were not satisfied by arguments showing how successful it was – the charity sector naturally felt frustrated and aggrieved by the continued attack on this brilliant form of fundraising, withdrew and retrenched, and gave the impression that it was ever more defensive. It was a positive feedback loop: the more charities talked past their critics, the more the critics attacked, the more charities withdrew from engaging.

The same pattern was repeated with the ceo saga last summer. The principal, overriding objection to ceo salaries has been that they are too high. Full stop. End off. Not that they are overpaid in relation to the results they achieved, nor that the pay differential with other staff is too high. It is simply that ceos are being paid too much. It is an ethical issue: charities that are funded by public donations ought not pay their senior staff six figure salaries.

The sector’s response when this media attack stormed over the horizon was disjointed and uncoordinated with no consistent messages being delivered in response. But the arguments that have tended to be used in defence are

Charities must respond to  the actual criticisms, rather the deliver all the practical stuff you just wish they would understand and, if you tell them enough times, maybe they will

that you have to pay the right money to get the right staff, that various well-paid ceos have performed well in raising more money or delivering services, that salaries are benchmarked against other sectors, or ceos could earn more if they worked in the private sector (or charities would break ranks and claim they paid their boss less than other charity ceos). All of which are practical defences.

I’m not saying that these arguments aren’t sound – they are (apart from the ‘we pay our ceo less than you pay yours’ argument). Just that they are not going to convince anyone who believes it is unethical for charities to pay such large salaries to senior staff.

The focus groups run recently by nfpSynergy for the ImpACT Coalition confirmed this. Participants were presented with a number of statements to test whether these would reassure them that charities were using donated money wisely. Some referred to senior salaries, including:

They didn’t work. Most were met with derision and sarcasm. When discussing ceo salaries before being presented with these messages, the group had reached consensus that it was necessary to pay appropriate salaries. But their underlying, gut-feel opposition to the use of donated income to pay large salaries to senior charity staff was ever present, and when presented with practical justifications for large salaries, the ethical dimension triumphed.

Learn from how F2F improved the media climate

The media climate in face-to-face fundraising was turned around in the past few years by using a set of key messages that engaged more directly with the objections being raised. The main thing I always fell back on when doing media interviews was that F2F fundraising was, in principle, just like every other type of fundraising, meaning that there were many things that F2F had in common with all fundraising: you had to ask, it cost money to ask, you wouldn’t break even until some future date but when you did you’d get a lot of money back, asking you to give might make you feel guilty if you wanted to decline.

This allowed me to discuss many objections to F2F, including ethical objections, in the context of fundraising as a whole, so I didn’t come across as if I were special pleading on behalf of ‘chuggers’.
The other thing I did was find a number of ‘advocates’, independent of the charities conducting street fundraising, who could speak up for this type of fundraising. People have a natural tendency to say ‘well you would say that’ when someone with a vested interest defends what they consider to be an objectionable practice. But they take more note when it is someone without such a direct connection.

People have a natural tendency to say ‘well you would say that’ when someone with a vested interest defends what they consider to be an objectionable practice

I’ve written before in the ImpACT Coaltion’s Through A Glass Darkly pamphlet that this system – key messages and advocates – is directly transferable to defend any type of fundraising. I also believe it can also be adapted to work for any issue relating to the charity sector.

The key is to really listen to what critics are objecting to and then try to deal with those criticisms, rather the deliver all the practical stuff you just wish they would understand and, if you tell them enough times, maybe they will.

In the case of ceo salaries, it might include key messages such as these:

Using messages such as these allows a discussion about the ethics of paying large salaries. Practical matters, such as the fact that senior staff in the charity sector get less than they would do for comparable jobs in the private sector, can then be used to support the ‘ethical’ key messages. But they don’t form the main thrust of the sector’s defence.

As I mentioned earlier, participants in the ImpACT Coalition/nfpSynergy focus group that I observed began with a knee-jerk, gut feel opposition to paying high salaries, but eventually reached a slightly grudging consensus that it was necessary and appropriate to pay a good salary to get the right person to do a job.

What initiated this move to consensus was just one member of the group saying something like: ‘Hang on, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Working for a charity is a job and you have to earn enough to live on, and if charities didn’t pay a proper salary, they wouldn’t be be able to find good staff.’

And then like tumbling dominoes, there were lots of murmurs of ‘yeah, I suppose your right’. While they never bought into this wholeheartedly, and the sudden appearance of some justification statements later in the group initiated a reversion to the ethical stance, it was genuinely surprising how easily and quickly they were tipped into the opposing ‘practical’ camp.

And the reason, I think, was because it was not a charity lecturing them about the practical need to pay salaries to senior staff, it was one of their own putting the other side to the story. Which reinforces the need to find ‘advocates’ who can talk confidently and independently about the need to pay appropriate salaries to appropriate staff, or indeed, any other controversial matter relating to charities and their work.
The best advocates to do this would be trustees, donors and, best of all, beneficiaries.