I thought I’d post an update about the ruckus that has kicked up around SSE Fellow Dave Pitchford’s Intelligent Giving website. Obviously [disclaimer alert] we are biased as we have a connection to the organisation, but I do think it’s an interesting tale with some relevant lessons.
It started with an article about Children in Need which criticised it being poor at reporting/transparency and recommended giving direct to local charities rather than central grant-givers, because that’s a more efficient way of donating. This then led to an article in the Times and lots of follow-ons in the Mail, the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday Telegraph (in which Terry Wogan called them ‘contemptible’) and across the sector press as well.
The IG team claim the original Times article misquoted them badly, and that several of the subsequent ones have as well (see their blog and the discussion forum on the site for all the links and rebuttals and responses).
Most recently, yesterday’s Society Guardian weighed in as well, quoting critics from the Institute of Fundraising (‘crude’!) and Sue Ryder Care ("disturbing"!; disclaimer: SRC’s annual review gets strong criticism on the IG website). What’s interesting is that none of the articles or critics have actually answered the original points from the article, but merely said, effectively, "who are these upstarts!" or, as the SRC man puts it more eloquently, these "self-appointed guardians – with apparently little demonstrable understanding of the operating framework of modern charities".
Now obviously we at the SSE know a little more about it, but you only have to look at the people who’ve helped/advised (Geoff Mulgan, David Robinson, Luke Fitzherbert, Fred Mulder, New Philanthropy Capital, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation etc. etc….) and to have seen the 43 criteria they judge by, and how they were thought through to know that the "little demonstrable understanding…" is way off beam. You only have to look at the sensitive wording around, for example, fundraising and admin costs on each profile to see that this is far from crude. (the US version, Charity Navigator, does include these in its ratings….). See also this discussion on Fundraising UK’s forum, which is much calmer…
As for self-appointed, well, to a degree all social entrepreneurs are to begin with (who "appointed" Lady Ryder to start her first nursing home? or Michael Young to start the Consumers Association? etc..or did they just see a problem that they understood and aim to solve it?), but what the article misses is arguably the most important point. Yes, the founder/backer have a background in journalism (along with a whole other range of cross-sector work) but they are also both donors. That is to say that they come from the community they are aiming to serve…rather than, perhaps, one of the countless voluntary sector-led initiatives which are operating in the same field. And they have worked hard (see above) to get buy-in from the sector at large…very few charities actually seem to have complained, but see it as a potentially welcome addition to the field.
The only part of the criticism that rings in any way true is that charities should be judged by impact and effectiveness, rather than just finances/transparency/accountability. A massive complex job that I’m sure Intelligent Giving would be delighted to take on with greater capacity. After all, it wasn’t criticising CIN’s impact, but its reporting and the inefficiency of the giving mechanism…..
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the same edition of the Guardian featured an article calling for charities to be more professional, including "And governance issues should be addressed. If you are to handle public funds, you must be visibly accountable and transparent." Meanwhile, there is news elsewhere about a consultation for the government funded Charitable Giving and Philanthropy Research Centre ….so clearly they are operating in a field of some relevance, no?
The lessons (for me)?
– Social entrepreneurs do challenge the status quo and are often self-appointed; but that’s not a bad thing as long as they’re not being some heroic individual who is not listening, understanding or engaging with their stakeholders/beneficiaries…..which is not the case here
– The media is a double-edged sword (OK, not so much a lesson as revision); + one article can lead to another….but if the first one doesn’t get it quite right…..
– That the sector needs challenging if it wants to improve, and needs to acknowledge its weaknesses as well as communicate its strengths; being honest about your weaknesses (and how you intend to address them) is far better than communicating that "everything is perfect" (does anyone ever believe that?)…
– Informed debate is healthy and to be welcomed….