Our charities are doing well. Give them a break

By Barry Frankfurt, March 19, 2009

It seemed all too familiar. A UK charity had promised a significant sum and then failed to deliver. The charity argued that the intended recipients had not given it the undertakings required. The would-be beneficiaries said they had been promised the cash and were in desperate need.

Sound familiar? No, it’s not JNF-UK, whose tribulations the JC has extensively reported, but Sentebale, the charity set up by Princes William and Harry, which had promised £30,000 to a children’s home in Lesotho.

It has put the issue of trust and accountability in the charity sector under the microscope, ironically, at a time when a survey by nfpSynergy, a research consultancy for not-for-profit organisations, found that charities’ standing with the public has risen in the last year, with 65 per cent of British adults saying they trust charities compared with 42 per cent in 2007.

If a similar exercise were to be undertaken in the Jewish community today, the results might be very different. Having spoken to senior executives at leading communal organisations, it is clear there is a real fear that donors at all levels are losing trust in our charities.

While the evidence is mostly anecdotal, there has undoubtedly been a marked shift in attitudes. When Creative & Commercial began working with the charity sector in the late ’90s, we treated our clients much as we would a corporate client. We identified what they had to offer, established a compelling proposition and delivered it as creatively as possible.

The formula was simple: be honest, be creative and, hopefully, be successful. But recently there has been a desire for the emphasis to change. “We need to tell them we’re trustworthy”; “Can we increase our transparency rating?” they ask. Time, resources and, in some cases, advertising space is being taken up with messages about trust.

The charities find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand we want them to be low-cost and high-impact. On the other, we want them to be run like a top corporation. The sort of questions that would previously have been reserved for an M&S annual meeting are now being asked of the charitable sector. Donors want details about governance, overheads and retained income. We want our charities to be run like a well-oiled FTSE 100 company but are critical of the running costs and salaries involved in ensuring such practice. We can’t have it both ways.

The emergence of donor-advisory websites such as Intelligent Giving has placed charities under further scrutiny. At the click of a mouse, you can find out how much goes to those in need, as opposed to salaries, marketing and other fundraising costs.

When it comes to transparency, Jewish charities are average: IG gives a percentage rating based on information made available to donors. UJIA (59 per cent) and Jewish Care (60 per cent) do not do as well as, say, the British Heart Foundation (73 per cent).

But our charities excel when IG assesses where the money ends up. Jewish Care remits an astonishing 93 per cent of all income to charitable work; UJIA an outstanding 84 per cent. Even JNF scores 78 per cent. The top secular charities do not come close: Cancer Research UK (72 per cent), Macmillan (71 per cent) and the British Heart Foundation (49 per cent), all spend significantly more on raising their money than our top organisations.

As the credit crunch bites, charities are finding fundraising tough and they need our trust more than ever. Of course they need to act responsibly with our money but on the whole, they already do. The outstanding work done by our charities should not be undermined by pressure to raise the IG transparency rating when they should be raising funds instead.

Barry Frankfurt is managing director of Creative & Commercial

Last updated: 2:24pm, March 19 2009