As 2015 dawns I find myself reflecting on the past year in the voluntary sector. A lot of emphasis in the last 12 months seems to have been placed on the financial aspects of charities. Questions about chief executives’ pay have dominated many debates, while major viral fundraising phenomena have drawn huge amounts of attention from the general public – think of the no-make-up selfie and the ice bucket challenge.
While some other aspects of the sector have made the news (e.g. discussion about the rights and wrongs of the government’s ‘volunteering’ schemes), the first thing most people think of when they think of charities is fundraising. I know from personal experience – 9 times out of 10 when I say I work in the charity sector people automatically assume I’m a fundraiser. When I mention some of the other things I do – volunteering development, project management, training, etc. – they look at me blankly. People simply only think about charities in connection with asking for money rather than how we get down to the fundamental business of helping people (or animals, or the environment).
You may wonder what the problem is with that. But to me, focusing solely on the financial side of charities misses the point.
By only considering finances people try to judge charities on financial criteria alone: What percentage of charity A’s funds goes on administration? How much of every £1 fundraised is spent on more fundraising? What does the man or woman at the top earn? How much does the charity raise in a year? Rather than looking at the bigger picture including outcomes: How many people has charity A helped and in what ways? What does charity B bring to the local community? What progress has been made towards charity C’s goals over the year? What would happen (or not happen) if charity D didn’t exist?
Whether consciously or subconsciously people end up using financial criteria to decide whether or not to support a particular charity or even charities in general. Whether you’re an individual with £1 to donate, or a corporation looking for a charity of the year, or a government minister deciding which sectors to support with government incentives you have to decide some how which charity to support. And if you only look at finance your decision is based on only part of the story. Moving the conversation away from fundraising and changing the image of charities from the person in the street shaking a bucket is essential if people are to be able to make informed choices about who or what to support.
While we can’t change the stories the media pick up on, or the things that capture the public’s attention, I do think we need to make one of our resolutions for 2015 to try to do just that.