Jane Bradley: Let’s not lose our faith in charities

A memorial is displayed at Fishponds Methodist Church for 92-year-old Olive Cooke. Picture: Getty
A memorial is displayed at Fishponds Methodist Church for 92-year-old Olive Cooke. Picture: Getty
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It has been a bad time for charities. Claims that the sheer volume of requests from not-for-profits contributed to the tragic death of 92-year-old pensioner Olive Cooke, who dedicated her life to selling poppies in aid of war veterans, was probably the worst piece of PR that UK Charities PLC could have had. Ever.

Of course, a few days later, it emerged the allegations that charity demands contributed to the lady’s death were unfounded. Her family defended the organisations, insisting Mrs Cooke would have wanted the work of charities to be promoted, not criticised.

But the damage was already done – the latest dent in the reputation of a sector which has become as maligned in recent months as the banks or the energy firms. Almost.

Following the allegations surrounding Mrs Cooke, people took to social media to criticise direct mailings, phone calls and chuggers – those people who stand on the street, forcing you to do a John Cleese-style silly walk, zig-zagging in a bid to avoid them.

In Mrs Cooke’s case, I’ll happily agree, 267 letters in one month is excessive. But I’m not sure what critics want charities to do about it. They are separate organisations. They will not have got together in some big, “charities meeting” to decide to target her en masse.

Individually, they will have had Mrs Cooke’s address because she had, in the past, donated to them – or signed up to something which allowed them to access her details.

There is, indeed, a reciprocal agreement in place, which allows charities to swap data of a supporter who has agreed for their information to be passed on. But the rules are strict: the charity which has acquired the information can contact the prospective supporter once and once only. If the person does not respond, contact cannot be made again.

Mrs Cooke had, her family said, up to 27 direct debits to different charities. She was a very altruistic lady who should be remembered for her generosity. This meant a lot of people had access to her information. But large charities in particular are very hot on data protection laws. If your name shouldn’t be on their database, it probably isn’t.

Yes, sometimes these attempts to make contact are irritating. However, the charities have worked out that contact generates income. Income which is, lest we forget, going to good causes.

There are around 163,000 registered charities in the UK, which between them, handle about £60 billion a year and employ around 750,000 people. To raise this kind of cash, charities need people who are skilled; who have relevant experience; at the highest level, people who know how to steer a large organisation to success.

Because, what we need to remember is that charities have to operate like big business if they are to manage to finance the numerous worthy causes they want to fund. They have come under fire for paying their senior staff high salaries. Bear in mind these high salaries are tiny in comparison to the amount they could have earned in the private sector, where successful companies mainly do well because they pay good people to work for them.

Take Cancer Research UK, Britain’s biggest charity, which funds huge amounts of research into a disease which currently will affect one in three of us during our lifetime. Its chief executive, Harpal Kumar, a man with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities and a wealth of experience in the charity sector, earns about £230,000 a year. Shocking, eh? Not really.

Cancer Research UK’s “income” from fundraising – the charity word for what in a normal company would be called turnover or revenue – was, in the financial year 2013-14, £490 million a year. The figure is not far off double the annual turnover of successful drinks maker AG Barr, which reported turnover in 2014 of £260.9m – and paid its chief, Roger White, almost £1.1m last year – five times Mr Kumar’s pay. It is more than the £436m turnover of Scotmid, whose highest paid executive pocketed more than £400,000. Would you expect these companies to operate without experienced, competitively paid staff? Thought not.

Let’s not, in lieu of another evil industry to hate, start turning against charities. We would be a lot worse off without them.