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‘Charities should be prepared for bad headlines’

22 April 2016


Investigated: locked gates at the Kids Company charity, in August of last year

Investigated: locked gates at the Kids Company charity, in August of last year

THE scandal surrounding Kids Company is not the climax of negative press-coverage of charities, and those working in the sector should prepare for a big story that will do even greater damage, a seminar heard last week.

The meeting — “Can charities win back public trust?” — heard that charities were ill-prepared for negative headlines, failing in their interactions with the press, and that some of the decline in public trust was deserved.

“Where you find a story that can be told simply and resonates with people’s previous prejudices, like the Panama papers, or the expenses scandals, or phone hacking, you can suddenly channel all of this pre-existing suspicion into one debilitating media story, and it seems to me like all of the ingredients are there, it’s just that the story has not come along yet,” the editor of politics.co.uk and a panellist, Ian Dunt, said after the event. “Kids Company or fund-raising: these are not the climax or the culmination, but examples of how little trust there is.” He suggested that the next big story might involve tax avoidance, data protection, or fund-raising.

Public suspicion was not necessarily unjustified, he said. “People have quite a clear sense of natural justice, and expect more from charities, and they would be quite horrified to see, for instance, the aimlessness and gradual expansion in size of really large charities.” Those who argued that the press “has it in” for charities should reconsider their stance, he said. “A lot of the time there is a very good reason to be ‘in’ for them.” He cited corporate partnerships as one area in which charities should expect to be held to higher ethical standards.

Communication by charities was also a problem, he suggested: “By adopting managerial passive language, in the same way that politicians and corporate spokespeople do, charities have been increasingly associated with the Westminster bubble rather than something associated with the outside.”

The managing director of Slack Communications, Becky Slack, said that she “did not really buy” charities’ excuse that they had not seen coming negative stories about fundraising. The fact that the public had been shocked to learn about the salaries of senior executives suggested that charities had “done a really bad job about communicating how they operate in the modern world,” she said. She was critical, too, of the fact that many charities had responded by “sticking their heads in the sand”.

“Charities are very good at advocating for others, and not so good at advocating for themselves,” she said. “If you have messed up, by all means apologise, but charities could have been a bit more robust in their defence of their actions.”

Her advice to charities included conducting risk-management exercises, for example, considering which activities might be subject to negative press-coverage, and collaboration to produce collective responses.

She suggested several areas that might generate the next big story, including expenditure of restricted funds on unrestricted activities, corporate partnerships, and pensions liabilities.

The debate included a presentation by the managing director of Ipsos Mori, Bobby Duffy. His research suggests that trust in charities had fallen by more than ten per cent since 2013. Polling has also found that the chief executives of UK charities get the fourth lowest trust score out of 22 countries. Almost half (49 per cent) of the 1000 people in the UK surveyed in March gave a negative response when asked if they would generally trust charity chief executives to tell the truth.

The debate was hosted by New Philanthropy Capital and Deloitte’s Charities and Not for Profit Group. It follows a warning by MPs that charities were being given a "last chance" to self regulate (News, 29 January). In the past year, two inquiries into fundraising have taken place, prompted by the death of Olive Cook, an elderly supporter said to have been hounded by charities requesting funds (News, 22 May). In August, Kids Company was closed amid allegations of mismanagement. The salaries awarded to those running charities have also prompted concern in recent years (News, 9 August, 2013). Media investigations into fundraising practices have included secret filming inside call centres. 

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