FOCUS: CHARITIES - Sending out the right signals/Charities face ever more competition for donations and have to be able to counter issues such as negative publicity, all on relatively shoestring budgets Robert Gray reports.

There can be little doubt that for the UK’s leading charities, fundraising has become harder than ever. Competition within the sector has intensified as a profusion of niche charities and special appeals have sprung up over the years.

There can be little doubt that for the UK’s leading charities,

fundraising has become harder than ever. Competition within the sector

has intensified as a profusion of niche charities and special appeals

have sprung up over the years.

Nationwide, there are about 135,000 charities actively serving the

public (the number swells to nearly 200,000 if one includes all

charities registered with the Charity Commission). Moreover, according

to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, around 3,000 new

charitable organisations are set up each year.

In these circumstances, the larger charities have generally continued to

thrive. Independent research carried out annually on behalf of the

Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers found that there has been no

decline in giving to the 50 largest charities. Yet this masks a worrying


’There is still growth but the growth rate is declining,’ says Institute

director Stephen Lee. ’That trend has been apparent for the last three

or four years.’

Opinion is divided as to whether the National Lottery should shoulder

some of the blame. Since its inception, the lottery has notched up

ticket sales of pounds 17 billion. With 28 pence of every pound it

raises going to ’good causes’ - about pounds 5 billion in total to

date - some observers have argued that this situation has diverted

people from making direct contributions to charities.

However, the Charities Aid Foundation, for one, has concluded that the

Lottery has not affected charitable giving. What is causing greater

concern is that the overall trend is for fewer people to give to charity

- although those that do are giving more. Given this societal shift, the

last thing anyone involved in publicity or fundraising in the voluntary

sector needs is negative publicity. Stories of mistakes or

inefficiencies can undermine public confidence and the media has become

much more ’vigorous’ in its scrutiny of charities.

As can be seen by the recent Panorama programme devoted to the Diana,

Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, the media is happy to go to town when

it believes there have been errors of judgement at a charity.

Despite having raised over pounds 47 million (with plenty more on the

way) in its short life, the Diana Fund has already been criticised for

the questionable taste of permitting Diana’s signature to appear on tubs

of Flora margarine, attacked for the fact that co-founder Anthony

Julius’ law firm Mishcon de Reya has earned substantial fees for its

work for the Fund, and lambasted for the amount of time it is spending

pursuing non-licensed companies that are cashing in on Diana’s name and


Lee, who appeared on Panorama, thinks the Fund is being too easily

distracted by attempts to protect the Diana trademark and fears that

this could reach an ’absurdly illogical end’, with too much of the money

raised spent on intellectual property lawyers. ’It should not be about

trying to police the world in relation to trademarks,’ he says.

Information from the 1997 edition of CAF’s Dimensions of the Voluntary

Sector shows that the top 500 charities spent an average of eight per

cent of their income on fundraising and publicity. A reasonable

proportion one would assume - but this average covers a range of one to

51 per cent.

Bringing management and administration costs into the equation as well,

CAF’s figures show that the average spend is nine per cent. Once again,

however, this conceals that the range is one to 52 per cent.

The question of how great a proportion of income should be spent on

fundraising and publicity is far more vexed. For example, according to

the CAF figures, in 1996 Help the Aged had a total income of pounds 50.4

million. Of this, it spent pounds 22.4 million on charitable works and

pounds 10.7 million on fundraising and publicity (the balance of

expenditure was on shop trading and charity administration, pounds 17.4

million and pounds 569,000 respectively).

To the casual reader, the fact that the amount spent on helping the

elderly was just over double the amount devoted to fundraising and

publicity might appear inadequate. But as Help the Aged head of press

and PR Betty McBride points out, its clients are not as immediately

appealing to the public as ’children or animals’ and it has to work

harder to raise funds.

’We have to spend more to raise more,’ she says. ’There are charities

which benefit from a whole evening of television coverage to raise

funds. So when you look at their ratios they look very attractive.’

With competition for fundraising so tight, many charities are having to

work on their positioning in the marketplace. ’Inevitably you will get

unnecessary expenditure just to keep up with the competition,’ says

Hobsbawm Macaulay joint managing director Julia Hobsbawm, whose client

base runs from publishers to charities.

’On the whole it’s a very crowded market and that creates problems such

as the need for PR to create distinguishing characteristics for


But charities must be careful not to fall into the trap of embracing

marketing terminology as wholeheartedly as commercial organisations.

This could have the effect of making consumers, who are constantly

exposed to advertising and other forms of marketing communications,

cynical and reluctant to give.

Far better, argues Lee, for charities to concentrate on promoting their

’output’: what they do for the greater good. Lifeboat charity RNLI makes

a virtue of this, highlighting in its literature that 82.5p in every

pound received is spent on charitable works.

’We can actually show fairly easily what we’ve spent our money on

because it’s things like shiny new lifeboats and lifeboat stations,’

says RNLI press and public information manager Sue Denny.

Given the intensification of competition, more charities are willing to

pay ’market rate’ salaries to attract top fundraisers.

’Good, qualified and experienced fundraisers are at a premium because

they are in short supply,’ says James Rye, head of PR at cerebral palsy

charity Scope ’That is driving the salary levels up and we for one are

finding it hard to compete. It’s classic supply and demand for an area

of activity that is absolutely crucial.’

The debate on market rates also extends to external services such as PR

advice. ’If the charity is good at what it does it should always try to

get things at cheaper than the market rate because it is

not-for-profit,’ says Hobsbawm. ’But sometimes if you want the best

support you are going to have to pay the market rate.’

Quite so. Given the masses of voluntary sector organisations vying for

consumers’ beneficence and the media’s alacrity to expose any charity it

considers to have fallen short of the highest standards, badly

discounted or free advice could in the long term prove very expensive



Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph ran a story under the headline

’Vagrants are Fed Up with Kindness’. The thrust of the article was that

homeless people living rough in central London were complaining about

do-gooders waking them at all hours of the night with offers of soup and


Some of these were trying to ply the street homeless with food that was

simply not wanted. And if their ’kindness’ was rejected they would

occasionally leave the food and drink anyway, causing hygiene and litter


Stories such as this are a headache for homeless charities as the

implication is that there is a surfeit of resources being given to those

without a roof over their heads. Such an impression could lead to a fall

in donations with unwelcome consequences for those who rely on the

charities to provide them with accommodation.

’Soup runs cost comparatively little compared to the rather large cost

of housing 20,000 homeless people in London every night,’ says Tony

Trueman, communications manager at homeless charity St Mungo.

’Clearly the message is not ’don’t help the homeless people.’ It is a

question of co-ordination,’ says Annie Turner, deputy director of the

Homeless Network.

The organisations behind the most established soup runs in the West End

agree that something has to be done to avoid turning altruism into a

complete nuisance. To this end, Westminster City Council has, after

receiving complaints from the homeless, been working to ensure that

common sense prevails.

’What we have done is merely say to all the organisations and the police

- after consulting some of the street homeless - that there needs to be

greater co-ordination between the soup runs,’ says a council


’We want them to talk among themselves and set out a code of practice,

perhaps split up the areas they cover. We are encouraging and

facilitating these charities and other volunteers to bring some planning

to what is happening.’

Sorting out this minor problem will allow charities to concentrate on

bigger issues that address the genuine plight of the homeless.


In April this year, Cancer Research Campaign director general Professor

Gordon McVie made a speech in which he asserted that there were too many

cancer charities - the number stands at about 600. McVie called for a

change in the law in order to avoid duplication of work, warning that

money was being wasted and the public being confused by an ’unnecessary

rivalry’ between charities.

’With so many charities there is bound to be replication and duplication

of effort,’ says CRC director of communications Susan Osborne. ’But we

are honour-bound to make sure that, wherever possible, research is not

duplicated. It would be awful if the faith the British public has put in

us was squandered in some way.’

CRC itself merged with the North of England Cancer Research Campaign in

April and would like to see more mergers and closer co-operation among

charities in its sector. But some cancer charities believe it is

imperative to protect their separate identities.

’I would draw a distinction between the research charities and the care

charities,’ says Macmillan Cancer Relief PR manager Carolan Davidge.

’Cancer is actually 200 different diseases and a woman with breast

cancer will need very different support and charity services to a man

with prostate cancer.’

CRC responds that it appreciates this distinction and that it is

concerned specifically with other cancer research charities. Yorkshire

Cancer Research Fund, which distributes the money it raises to five

teaching hospitals in the county, argues that people are more

’motivated’ if they know funds are used locally.

Northwest Cancer Research Fund chairman Michael Potts broadly agrees

with CRC. ’The public do get confused when they hear of yet another

charity with cancer research in its title. The comments were really

directed at the smaller appeals. Charities such as ourselves should be

more accommodating to these appeals because we have the organisation and

administration to assist them.’

The Institute of Cancer Research claims there is a place for both the

large and small research charities. Its head of laboratories Professor

Colin Cooper says: ’The large cancer charities are important as they are

good at funding big projects. But the small charities have a role too.

What we’ve actually found is that some of our best projects have been

initially funded by smaller charities because they may have seemed quite

speculative so the larger charities wouldn’t touch them.’

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