Friday 17 July 2015

A Chokehold On Funding That Could Cripple Charities

There are twitchy times ahead for charities, as the public's relationship with them and the way they raise funds continues to sour.
It used to be simple. Charity boxes in the shape of guide dogs or kids with legs in calipers outside the newsagents. Perhaps someone with a red tin and a placard on the high street on a Saturday afternoon. Drop in fifty pence, and you felt like you'd contributed.
These days, charities are ever more inventive in ways to get us to give and keep giving. From TV ads to the Ice Bucket Challenge, sponsored walks to street workers with direct debit forms, it can feel as if you're constantly being asked to pony up for a deserving cause.
That's the feeling for a chunk of the general public, anyway, who are looking at charity cold-calling and street teams with increasing amounts of loathing. The Olive Cooke case has bought the issue into sharp relief. Olive, one of the British Legion's longest-serving poppy sellers, was found dead at the bottom of the Avon Gorge in May, following a newspaper article in which she had claimed she was suffering from depression brought on by the high number of donation requests she recieved. Some newspaper reports reported that over 270 such requests had come through her letterbox in a single month.
In the light of that, and the ongoing media furore (ever alert to the chance of a headline, even Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in with a comment, setting his Minister for Civil Society onto the Fundraising Standards Board) public opinion has cooled yet further. A letter template requiring charities to stop cold-calling launched by BBC's The One Show was downloaded 18,000 times in a week. There are concerns that it's unclear how to opt out of a charity's subscription list, or that those lists are shared between organisations.
All of which leads to one conclusion: charities are out of control when it comes to getting hold of our money. Right?
There are very clear controls in place for how charities contact the public and opt-outs have to be in place on any communication by law. Horror stories like that of Olive Cooke inevitably lead to a spike in complaints from people who suddenly feel like victims of a pernicious cold-call culture, lumping charity calls in with PPI and utility suppliers as invaders of the sanctity of the English home. Worse still, this article in the Manchester Evening News lumps street fundraising in with unlicensed busking and even begging as nuisances that are to be cracked down on buy council officers in the busy Market Street area of the city.
It's possible that the Institute of Fundraising could become more involved in drafting and enforcing guidelines, but there is no clear sign that this is likely. Ministerial involvement is likely to be fleeting, fading away as soon as the cameras switch off.
But the damage has already been done. The increasingly poor image of traditional charity fund-raising has taken another hit, and leaves us with a worrying question. As the Third Sector is asked to do more to plug the gap in funding torn open by austerity measures, and at the same time are crippled in how they raise funds to do that work, how long will it take before charities start to fold and more and more vulnerable people are left out in the cold?

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