Jack Nicholson’s moving portrayal of a lonely old man in About Schmidt convinced me that I should sponsor a child. You may remember the scene at the end: he gets a letter from a nun in the Tanzanian village where a little boy has been receiving his largesse and realises that his life has not been meaningless. He has made a difference to somebody.
I wept buckets as the credits rolled and not long afterwards signed up to a sponsorship programme with a leading charity in the hope that I too could make life better for one person. And maybe I did. I was allocated a child in Armenia. I pledged an embarrassingly low sum of money, really, when you consider how needy half the world is, and how much we in the West lavish on luxuries and incidentals. But it was what I could budget for on a monthly basis at the time.
When the young boy sent me his first letter he told me he was a Chelsea fan, so I wrote back telling him that I was too and sent a few small items in a package from the Chelsea FC gift shop on the Fulham Road. He never mentioned the gift in subsequent letters, all written on the same formal notelets bearing the charity’s emblem. But I like to think he might have got it. I gave the matter less thought over time and when the same standard updates came each year I only glanced through them.
Earlier this year, I received the annual letter saying ‘It’s your sponsored child’s birthday soon, please sign this card’ — a card bearing puzzle games. It occurred to me that he had to be getting a bit old for this. I looked up his date of birth and he was about to turn 18. So I rang the charity and asked whether they had made a mistake and should be informing me that my stint had come to an end. But the call centre was adamant that the arrangement should continue. When I asked what the boy was doing that still required support, they said the field centre was hard to get word back from. I told them I would be grateful if they could try because, quite honestly, if this were my own son I wouldn’t be offering to support him financially for very much longer.
A few weeks later, I rang again and asked if they had found anything out. I was told that my sponsored child was ‘still in education’. Fine, I said. Do we know what he is studying? No. Do we know how long he was going to be studying? No. The point was, they said, it was very important that my support did not dry up when the child turned 18 because if it did then he could get into gangs or drugs.
I put the phone down feeling pretty certain that I could never, ever cancel this direct debit. In a few years, my ‘sponsored child’ may be in London doing loft conversions or running a chain of restaurants and I will still be sending money to Armenia in his name, because there is no way I can cut him off.
I suspect I am not alone. We may start supporting charities with warm feelings, but how many of us end up feeling ever so slightly manipulated as the guilt trip goes on and on? In May, 92-year-old Olive Cooke killed herself after being pestered by dozens of organisations. She had somewhere in excess of 27 direct debits to charities and was getting 180 letters a month asking her to sign up to more. While her family have insisted that she did not kill herself directly through pressure from any particular charity, she was exhausted and depressed. She had discovered that if you sign up to one good cause, you trigger an cascade of requests from others, who, thanks to data sharing, have your contact details.
You may avoid the phone calls telling you about starving children and abused animals by unplugging your landline. But you may not be able to dodge the door-knocking by marketing firms employed by charities who are on commission for every direct debit they get someone to sign. Last year, a guy knocked my door announcing he was from Battersea Dogs’ Home. He said they needed funds because dogs were being tortured, so would I sign a direct debit.
I refused, but later discovered that my elderly neighbour had signed. I rang Battersea and they hadn’t heard of any tortured dogs. They blamed a private firm that was doing their door-knocking, and promised to contact those who had signed direct debits in my street. Charities use every trick to get your contact details, including ‘list brokers’ who obtain data if you’ve purchased something through mail order and did not tick the box stating you do not wish your details passed to a third party. And charities share data with other charities.
It doesn’t help foster feelings of goodwill that in tandem with sales techniques reminiscent of the worst corporate excesses of the 1980s and 1990s, charity chiefs are paid bigger salaries than some City boys. A Sun investigation recently found that Peter Wanless of the NSPCC, a charity supported by Olive Cooke, was earning £162,000 a year; Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty was on £200,000; Age UK chief executive Tom Wright earned £180,000. The RSPCA — whose website home page is one huge advert in large print screaming ‘Help Save Animals Today Donate Now’ — paid its last chief executive, Gavin Grant, £160,000 (a new one is yet to be appointed).
The charities are only able to get away with it because they have convinced the public that when money-making is for a good cause, rather than a commercial enterprise, we should turn a blind eye to exactly how the cash is raised and who benefits. In other words, we are expected to accept that charity greed is good. But is it? Is hard-selling by charities excusable or will it lead to a backlash that will ultimately hamper worthy causes?
I once had a cheeky letter from a charity telling me they were increasing my direct debit by £5 a month in line with inflation. I didn’t argue. My conscience wouldn’t let me. But couldn’t someone else argue on behalf of the donating masses?
The problem is that fundraising is entirely self-regulatory. The Charities Commission is the government body in charge of how charities perform their good works, while the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) receives complaints from the public about how money is being raised. It puts these to the Institute of Fundraising, a membership body containing 1,857 charities, representing 50 per cent of the funds raised by all charities. The FRSB has powers to audit and investigate. Their ‘give with confidence’ tick logo is meant to assure the public that a charity is following best practice. But the IOF set their own code of practice. The code states that charities may not pressure potential donors but ‘may use reasonable persuasion’. Ring a bell? An industry setting its own loose rules?
People have not wanted to complain about charities for fear of being seen as mean-spirited, but now they are coming forward. In the month following Olive Cooke’s death, the FRSB was sent 384 complaints about the behaviour of charities — compared with 488 for the whole of 2014.
The Charities Commission chairman William Shawcross says: ‘Our research suggests that around two thirds of people feel uncomfortable about some methods of fundraising. This is a crisis for the charity sector which is testing the strength and capacity of self-regulation.’ A task force has been set up to look at abuse of data and cold calling. The IOF has rushed out proposals to strengthen its code of conduct. The FRSB has told charities they must respect ‘no cold calling’ signs. And the minister for civil society, Rob Wilson, has told charities that they have until September to clean up their act or face new laws.
Maybe charities should have a statutory duty to check whether a potential donor can afford to donate. The FRSB does not believe, however, that charities should face as strict a statutory regime as financial services, arguing that this could hamper their ability to raise funds and that, away from head office, it is those needing our donations who will suffer.
But if ministers are forced to bring in regulation, it won’t be anyone’s fault but the charities’. They have two months to show they can be trusted. If they don’t, they will have had their chance to behave ethically and, just like the banks, they will have blown it.