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Save our charities – before it’s too late!

By Julian Smith

Warning: I’m about to get political. If you are a supporter of the Daily Mail, you probably shouldn’t read on. I’m not quite sure why you’d be following me anyway! However, if you believe this government has got it correct when it comes to austerity, then you might learn a thing or two.

Let me start by saying that although I’m British, I’m far from being overly patriotic. However, several wonderful things about this country can still raise my patriotism-meter, even if they don’t often result in me reaching for a Union Jack! They are, amongst others, our general attitude towards animals and animal abuse, our athletes and Olympians, the last night of the Proms, our general tolerance towards those who are different to ourselves, or hold different beliefs, and our wonderfully diverse charity sector and the millions in this country who support it. Whilst my mind might be focussing on those who are flying the flag in Rio later on this Olympic year (wish I was there…), right now I want to speak out in defence of that truly, great British institution: the charity sector.

Unless you have been living on the other side of the world, you cannot have escaped the constant barrage of attacks on charities over the last 12 months. These have ranged from attacks on the pay of top charity executives, to the way charities such as the wonderful RSPCA spend their money (in bringing prosecutions against those who flagrantly break the law), from the ways in which charities raise funds to the latest attack from government on charities trying to hold them to account – sorry, but it’s true. And let’s not forget about Kids Company either.

Whilst many of the accusations and stories you read are undoubtedly true and bring the sector into disrepute, that is NOT a reason to assume that the entire sector of 160,000 or so registered charities and community groups is either corrupt, inefficient, wasteful or unworthy of our support. As a recruiter who has worked with some of the largest and smallest charities over the last 15 years or so, I have met some incredible, selfless individuals who have sacrificed their earnings and potential earnings to find and champion solutions to the world’s problems, large and small. Ranging from tiny grass roots organisations to improve local communities, to international charities focussed on preventing wholesale slaughter of species and destruction of environments, these charities all have a part to play in the fabric of our society – and the vast majority of them do it very well, with more checks and balances on how the pennies are spent than the average Daily Mail reader is allowed to think.

I’m so passionate about protecting our sector that I could write pages on its defence – but I want to keep this blog as short and snappy as possible, and address a few of the criticisms which have recently made the news.

Let’s start with the pay of top charity executives. I’ll give you one example: “Outrage as charity bosses pocket six-figure salaries from generous public donations” shrieks Tom Parfitt of the Sunday Express in an appallingly one-sided article, even by a tabloid’s own standards. Public enemy number one seems to be Harpal Kumar, who seemingly “pockets up to £240,000 a year” and lives in a mortgage-free “luxury £1.6m home”. Regardless of the truth in Parfitt’s non-article, Dr Kumar studied at both Cambridge and Harvard, was employed by McKinsey and Co. and also founded a venture-capital backed medical devices company, 5 years before joining Cancer Research UK. This would seem to me that Dr Kumar has had ample opportunity (and ability) to make his fortune long before joining the charity sector, and if Cancer Research UK needed to pay the salary they do to attract a person with his talent, vision and drive, then I’m sure they were justified in doing so. Incidentally, Cancer Research UK’s income in 2015 was £634,808,043 according to the charity commission, and Dr Kumar is ultimately responsible for directing this funding in the fight against cancer, managing c. 4000 employees and 40,000 volunteers. Who is Tom Parfitt, or anybody to say that his salary is unjustified, when he earns considerably less than a lot of people in the financial services sector, and arguably contributes considerably more.

What frustrates me, as a recruiter, is that people seem to forget that charities often have to pay the going rate to attract the right talent to the sector – and in many instances, you get what you pay for. Charities trying to scrimp on a salary will often find themselves recruiting for the same role far too often – and each time they recruit, they move one or two paces backwards. If a charity has been struggling to recruit for more than a month, it’s quite often down to salary – and such constant, misleading scrutiny from the press sector (which itself refuses full regulation) leads to undue pressure on charities trying to save money on salaries, often at the expense of progress. More on this for another blog, I think…

A brief word on the RSPCA, one of my favourite charities and personal causes, suffering an almost unending barrage of attack from David Cameron and his cronies. There is a reason that this charity, founded in 1824 still exists today, and is much-loved and respected throughout the UK. It is also feared by those caught in the pursuit of illegal activities such as hare coursing and fox hunting, and according to their website, the RSPCA investigates over 150,000 incidents of animal cruelty and neglect every year. As a supporter of the RSPCA, I am delighted that they use my money to prosecute against cruelty. I wish that the current Prime Minister, himself a lover of fox-hunting and no friend to animals, hadn’t stretched the police and Crown Prosecution Service to the point that it falls to an organisation such as the RSPCA to have to do the job of the CPS, but the RSPCA in prosecuting hunts is indirectly lobbying the government for tougher laws. Small wonder then, that this wonderful charity and British institution who successfully prosecuted David Cameron’s own hunt in 2012 could be ‘stripped of power to prosecute as MPs launch investigation’ as revealed in last September’s equally pro-hunting, pro (insert the word ‘ineffective’) badger cull, Daily Telegraph.

The latest insidious attack by the government on the charity sector is another farcical attempt at a government which is out of step with modern thought, to silence critics of many of its draconian policies by banning charities from using public funds to lobby ministers. On the face of it, the governmental spin looks good, explaining that they wish to avoid funds being wasted ‘on the farce of government lobbying government’ – but what this really prevents is anti-poverty, children’s, health, education, armed forces and community charities amongst others from persuading government that prevention is better than cure. Others warn that if charities are effectively gagged, who can stand up to the government?

Let me leave you with this thought: charities don’t exist to take handouts; charities mostly exist to right wrongs and to provide services which are not provided by central or local government. Most charities would not exist, if there was no reason for them to do so. I’m sure Dr Kumar and his staff of 4,000 would happily tell you that they’d prefer that their jobs no longer existed, in a cancer-free world.

Finally, a brief and positive word, from one of our events. Last Wednesday, we hosted Paul Marvell, seasoned fundraiser, formerly of the Institute of Fundraising and now Head of Fundraising Strategy, British Red Cross. Paul is also Chair of Trustees of international children’s NGO ChildHope, and kindly volunteered his time to teach other trustees and charity representatives the importance of trustees fundraising for their own particular charities. What struck me more than anything last Wednesday evening was the fact that we were host to a warm, friendly and enthusiastic group of good people, all making a contribution to society in ways which the government, the Daily Mail and Express, should really see and try to understand. My sector – yep, unashamedly it’s here where I belong – is one of the best in the world, and the reason I feel as passionately as I do.

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