Backs to the wall or Back to The Future?

Published by Toby Bourke on

The Charity Sector is allowing itself to be bullied by the same media that championed Trump and Brexit. Our failure to mount a serious challenge to this agenda threatens to destroy decades of astonishing progress.

In October 2015, the small Dublin – based fundraising agency I ran was at the centre of a 6 page expose by the Irish Mail on Sunday. We’d only been in business for 5 months, hardly long enough to have done something to warrant the attentions of a major Sunday Newspaper. Shockingly, the story had been planned before we’d engaged a single member of the public.

We opened our doors in May 2015 and within weeks I’d been told that an IMOS reporter had been calling round charities and agencies, asking questions about me and my new agency. Eventually in early September, after we’d been in business 4 months, the journalist asked to meet me and presented me with a ‘dossier’ of claims. It turned out that the IMOS had managed to imbed 2 undercover reporters on our staff for 2 days when we were a mere 2 months old.

The claims were mostly invented or exaggerated to the point of absurdity but all designed to create more scandal about fundraising. The IMOS had taken the Fundraising Code of Conduct and attempted to illustrate where we had breached each code. One of the claims was that we disguised the fact that our fundraisers worked for an agency, even though the accompanying picture in the published article would clearly show our agents clearing wearing their ID badges with our logo visible on it. Only one claim about a fundraiser using profane language in a private conversation with a colleague during a break, was true.

From any objective view the IMOS had got nothing so when they printed the final article they added loads of salacious stuff to fill it out, including the fact that I was a ‘Jeremy Corbyn supporting lefty’ and I had recorded a hit duet with George Michael in the 1990s. The biggest thing on the page was a picture of George Michael!

I expect horrible things to come from the Mail. I wasn’t expecting the level of opprobrium we received from within the sector itself.

For some, we were guilty as charged. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we had brought shame on the family and we would receive no visitors. ‘No smoke without fire’ etc. My first consultancy cancellation came in an email within 24 hours of publication. Other agencies emailed the sector widely with their misleading versions of the story while some prominent sector ‘glitterati’ began popping on public blogs adding their baseless condemnations about our supposed behaviour.

The strong advice of the representative bodies was for us to do and say nothing. Any comment from us would simply create more of an issue for the sector. I disagreed but I decided against my better judgement to acquiesce with this request.

This strategy failed. Our silence meant that no one would know our side of the story. It ensured that those who read the story would have another reason to distrust charities. The response of those representing the sector was to accept the MOS article and discuss further regulation. No defence was offered.

I mention this because I believe this strategy of hiding behind the sofa, hoping that the right-wing press, with its anti – charity agenda, won’t find us there, is dangerously short-sighted. It’s the ‘wasp’ theory. ‘It won’t sting you if you don’t annoy it’ my mum would say. It still bloody stung me. Maybe doing nothing annoys wasps? Maybe being in the charity sector annoys the Mail.

We should be fighting back. Our sector does amazing work that should be robustly defended but we don’t do this. As soon as the finger of suspicion is pointed by the media, regardless of how appalling we know that media outlet to be, regardless of all the awful, horrible made-up bullshit they churn out, we either turn on the accused or shut up shop till the storm passes. Sometimes both.

From The Sun

Even in instances of high scandal we need to do more to defend the work of organisations involved. Such events at an Irish suicide charity resulted in the whole organisation closing when the alleged issue was clearly and specifically located with the CEO (and his family). This was a charity that helped thousands of people affected by suicide; its work had a real impact. Surely it was not beyond the best in the sector to make a case for a cleaned-up organisation to remain operational, based on the IMPACT its work has had.

We need to understand that many of these media attacks have less to do with governance than they do with ideology. When we see the return of headlines this winter condemning UK development charities for sending aid abroad to places like Aleppo and Sudan when British homes are being flooded then we need to understand the narrow chauvinistic ideology behind this. We will never appeal to these people.

Maybe Charities could follow the advice of Stop Targeting Hate and not place any advertising with News International, DMG Media or Express Newspapers.

It’s essential that we become experts at defending the work we do and demonstrating our impact. While we need great ambassadors for our work we also need skilled and battle-hardened media representatives to mix it up on our behalf. We must start defending work before it becomes indefensible. It’s all about impact.

We should also learn to be more supportive of organisations in our sector that have trouble of this kind. It might be tempting to speculate on blogs but I tell you, every comment counts.

The ch13arity sector is currently George McFly and DMG Media (particularly) is our Biff Tannen. When Biff is around we stare grimly into our milkshakes while he hurls abuse at us unabated.

George McFly found the courage to hit back. Will we? 

Toby Bourke

Toby Bourke is a public engagement specialist, who, amongst other things, is currently helping the Irish Heart Foundation re-imagine the scale of their ambition and reach. Toby has worked several non–profits, right across the globe including Greenpeace and Oxfam; he regularly speaks at international fundraising events particularly in the North and South America and is a life-long activist and supporter of progressive causes.


Simone Joyaux · December 5, 2016 at 18:11

Thank you for this eloquent plea. Speak up. Silence is consent. Our sector is no more problematic than the for-profit or government sectors. In fact, I’m hoping we’re less problematic. Hiding behind the sofa needs to stop.

Hannah GH · December 5, 2016 at 18:15

Hi Toby, thanks for sharing your thoughts – a refreshing, inspiring view. I’d be really interested to know your thoughts about what actions we can take as fundraisers and as a sector generally to ensure we “become experts at defending the work we do and demonstrating our impact”. I was excited to come across Scotland’s crisis campaign ‘Giving Scotland’ from the early 2000s. Do you think there could be potential for a similar campaign here?

    Toby Bourke · December 8, 2016 at 10:52

    Hi Hannah

    Yes it could work of course but I actually think that there are a number of steps we need to take.

    In fundraising especially, we all need to be much more aware of and connected to the impact that our work has. The public are unaware of the progress our organisations have made and the lives that have been transformed globally. We need to educate them about the impact our organisations have.

    Fundraising needs to be more closely connected to advocacy. We are allowing ourselves to be caught in isolation from the key stories our organisations have to tell and the impact that this work has. In isolation it is easy to portray us as a public nuisance. Fundraisers need to set themselves a simple test. Look at your fundraising programme; if 75% of it could continue without the input of colleagues from other departments at your non profit then you are probably too isolated from the big picture that gives your work legitimacy. Don’t worry – it can happen easily and you just need to address this.

    We need spokespeople who can roll with the punches and give as good as they get. We don’t have this. We need public advocates for the work we do and we don’t have these.

    We need to empower our sectoral leaders to push back against the alt right Daily Mail agenda. When was the last time the Daily Mail was regulated? It transgresses far more regularly than the non profit sector and we need to start talking about this. If our response is to meekly accept more regulation with every article then we will be regulated out of existence.

spider solitaire · December 10, 2021 at 02:21

We will never appeal to these people.

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