What does the Oxfam story mean for fundraising?

Daniel Fluskey on BBC News

Daniel Fluskey | 15 February 2018

For more than a week, Oxfam has been front page news. I don’t think there’s a national newspaper that hasn’t had the story covered extensively.

Or commented on it in editorials, and asked questions about what it means and what the future is for Oxfam, international aid organisations, and in some cases, charities and public donations more widely.

Since the story broke, the IoF has been approached for comment from a range of newspapers and magazines – both in the UK and abroad – and I’ve been on BBC News a couple of times, Radio 5Live on consecutive days, and about 20 local radio interviews, helping put what’s happening into context.

There is huge public and charity wide interest in what’s happening and we thought we should share with our members, and the wider fundraising community, the questions we’ve been asked and what the issues might mean for fundraising more widely, the experience of supporters and donors, and trust and confidence in the sector.

 

First and foremost, this is not a ‘fundraising’ issue.

It’s about safeguarding, protecting vulnerable people, delivering aid effectively, and transparency and accountability. The root of the story is not an ‘attack on the sector’. I agree with Karl Wilding at NCVO when he says that:

“Hinting that charities are victims within a wider culture war is a distraction that will only serve to undermine the important message: we unreservedly apologise to the victims; we take safeguarding extremely seriously; we tried to deal with the problem and informed stakeholders; we need to get better so as to minimise the chances of it happening again or, even better, eradicate completely the chance of it happening again.”

 

Will there be an impact on public trust and confidence?

The public, whether supporters of charities or not, will have heard this story. According to a poll commissioned by Third Sector, 73% of people had heard about the scandal – but only 11% said that it would result in them having a much more negative opinion of charities in general. As much as the media, politicians, or commentators refer to ‘charities’ as a homogeneous group and try to lump all together, most people don’t think about their small local charity, a museum, theatre, hospice, in the same way they think about more recognisable international aid agencies.

 

Will giving go down?

While we should never be complacent and will never take donors for granted, I don’t think that even if there is a short-term dip in public trust and confidence that we’ll see people giving less overall. The British public are committed to the charities they support, and hold a firm belief in giving to charitable causes. In fact, if you’re the kind of person that looks for positives, it’s worth noting that on Monday Oxfam received more new regular gifts then they had on a single day since March 2017.

 

Is there anything that charities and fundraisers should be doing?

Whatever work your charity is doing, it’s worth reflecting and thinking about how the values of your organisation are embedded in your policies, procedures, and training. Whether it’s how you manage volunteers, deliver your services, or raise money, it must be values-led, ingrained through all your work, and communicated to your supporters. That might mean reframing how we tell our stories to supporters about the work we do to show not just that it ‘does good’ but that it’s also achieved in a ‘good way’. It also means being more upfront about ‘admin’ costs to show that these are fundamental to good governance, safeguarding, accountability and training (watch Sir Stephen Bubb talking about this on Channel 4 news).

 

Is there anything to learn from the ‘fundraising crisis’ of 2015?

A couple of years ago it was charity fundraising on the front pages. Are there any lessons from that which could help steer us through this? A couple perhaps. First of all, this level of scrutiny is likely to be with us for a long time and anything that’s related, tangential, or that can be ‘fitted’ into the news cycle about ‘charities’ and particularly issues of safeguarding, will be looked at.

Secondly, our focus in the public’s eye has to be on addressing the issues that have been raised. It isn’t the time to cry ‘not fair’ or be seen to be self-serving. Of course we want a balanced debate and we will continue to speak up for charities and the amazing work that they do, but if we’re not seen to be responding to the problems then everything else will be lost.

And lastly, we talk a lot about public trust in charities. But sometimes charities have to trust the public too. Their trust and confidence, if lost, can be recovered; people are committed and loyal to the causes they care about; giving and donations will continue. In our fundraising and communications over the coming months we need to be sensitive to the public mood, pre-empt and be proactive in providing information and answering questions before they’re raised, and – as always – show the impact of our work, and the high standards that we follow as we make the world a better place. 

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