Give and Take: Criticism of Charities

Charities have come under fire recently as a result of questionable fundraising practices. But at a time where ever more people are dependent on the services charities provide, charities are more necessary than ever and they need to get their message across.

In May of 2015 the poppy seller Olive Cooke took her own life after receiving numerous calls and leaflets from charities asking for donations. An inquest into her death found she had suffered from insomnia, depression and cancer for a number of years beforehand. Cooke’s friends and family stated she was upset by invasive and continuous charity fundraising practices, which increased her suffering on top of her already declining physical and mental health. The story became headline news and in response David Cameron introduced a change to the law; charities will have to draw up written agreements of how they will protect vulnerable people from aggressive fundraising tactics. This legislation has been backed by 17 charities including Oxfam, the RSPCA and Cancer Research UK.

Earlier this month the RSPCA received criticism for paying investigators to assess how much donors are able to leave in their wills. In response to a news article from the Daily Mail, the RSPCA described its ‘legacy profiling’ activities as lawful and a common practice for charities. Using data collection methods to understand and target customers isn’t something new, or a practice only used by charities. Arguably, the difference between a charity collecting data and a business doing the same is that charities do it to help their beneficiaries, while businesses do it to maximise profits.

Given that charities seem to be becoming more target driven and business-like, a change linked to shrinking revenues, it’s strange that George Osborne has criticised charities for being ‘anti-business’, stating the free market has come under fire from pressure groups including trade unions and charities. Senior members of the Conservative party have criticised charities for becoming too political and ‘left wing’.

According to former board member of the Charity Commission Andrew Purkis, criticism of charities by politicians since 2012 has not been a coherent campaign but an expression of frustration over what politicians saw as charities presenting obstacles to their policies. In response to a poster campaign by Oxfam in June 2014 which criticized the “perfect storm” of zero hour contracts, benefit cuts, unemployment and childcare costs, the conservative MP Connor Burns asked the Charity Commission to investigate, while former Civil Society minister Brooks Newmark told charities to “stick to their knitting”.

In 2014 the Coalition Government tried to restrict charities’ access to judicial review, meaning it would have been more difficult for charities to challenge government policies. However this plan was defeated twice in the House of Lords. In January of 2014, the Transparency of Lobbying Act came into effect. This Act, called a “gagging law” by some charities, meant that if charities spend too more than £9,750 in a constituency promoting a message which could be interpreted as political in the run-up to an election, they may be prosecuted by the Electoral Commission. In response, 160 charity signatories have signed a letter calling for the Act to be scrapped and a report by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement has said the Act will drain the resources of charities and discourage charities from campaigning on political issues.

Nonetheless, charities continue to criticise the government’s economic programmes, including the Work Programme which began in 2011. The charity Mind has criticised the programme for failing people with mental health problems. While the government had expected to get 40% of ESA claimants into work, only 9% of people with mental health problems who are currently claiming ESA have been able to find a job. Mind has urged the government to take people suffering from mental illness of the Work Programme and offer them support tailored for their specific needs. The charity Scope as also argued the Work Programme isn’t working.

Many charities have criticised the government’s programmes of reducing welfare, selling off social housing and pressuring people into work. These policies have had measurable negative effects on those with low or middle incomes, people who are sick or disabled, the young and the vulnerable. Maybe this collective dissent by charities isn’t an unprecedented lurch to the political left, maybe it’s just that the people who rely on the support of charities have the most to lose from these policies. The more vulnerable people are left to fend for themselves, the more important charities become to people’s lives.

At New Hope we make the rights and privacy of our donors a priority. We don’t engage in cold calling or unwanted soliciting of donations. Neither do we share mailing lists or in any way compromise the privacy of individuals. But we do speak out for the people we serve. We try our best to inform people about the realities our service users are facing. We are proud to do this by working in partnership with local councils.

Charitable giving is more important now than ever. According to a study by the Institute for Fundraising, 69% of respondents in the charity sector reported an increase in demand for services in 2013, while 90% felt that the sector had come under more media scrutiny. Many people are experiencing poverty and a lower standard of living. That means charities should make the case for individual donations, but also for wider political changes to make society a fairer place for everyone. All institutions, whether political or voluntary, should be held to account, so when charities go too far and invade people’s privacy they should be brought back into line. But the right of charities to criticise unjust policies should also be protected. That only seems fair.

Alex Charlton