Lyndall Stein detects a concerted attack on the voluntary sector.

Photo: Ivosar/iStock

Choosing opinion, ignoring evidence: a deadly choice

3 December 2015
Author: Lyndall Stein

Our unique and extraordinary charity sector has suffered a series of damaging attacks. The Etherington Review and a politically-driven agenda threaten to undermine our fundraising practice and damage our work in a very serious way. But this needs to be seen in a broader context: it is one of a number of concerted attempts to silence and control the voice and power of the voluntary sector.

These have included the Lobbying Act passed before the election, which silenced or subdued many important voices in the sector. Further measures are being developed to tighten down on the space to campaign and challenge. This will be important for the government as cuts to our public sector and society drive deeper into the body politic.

Recent attacks by the Daily Mail and the response of NCVO suggest that the problem is not the lack of funds needed for addressing the scandal of inequality and poverty, but rather the overzealous efforts of fundraisers.

We need to remember that the so-called "Olive Cooke scandal" is not based on fact. Her family has explicitly denied the link between her suicide and the charity mailings she received. The only evidence has been the reporting of bad practice by suppliers and I do not know anyone working in fundraising who does not make real efforts every day to improve our work and our results.

However, we do have some robust evidence about how donors feel from the recent survey by Adrian Sergeant which surveyed over a million donors. The vast majority of the many thousands who responded were satisfied with their experience as donors.

all the charities I have worked with over the last 30 years take their donors seriously and work hard to improve their donor care

There is always room for improvement in terms of best practice: the drive for income can sometimes lead to short-term thinking and poor performance. But all the charities I have worked with over the last 30 years take their donors seriously and work hard to improve their donor care – and it makes sense to do so.

The Daily Mail has a very poor history of driving ill-informed and dangerous campaigns. One of the worst was a few years ago when they had a shock horror story about the link between Autism and the MMR vaccine. This was not based on robust science and evidence and dramatic and inaccurate reporting led to serious damage to one of the pearls of our public health programme – the vaccination of children. There was a serious outbreak of measles, many very sick children and damage to the immunity of communities, because the Daily Mail, rather than doctors and health professionals, had influenced parents' choices.

The evidence used by the NCVO for their report amounts to interviews with 22 members of the public, yes 22! And a very short consultation with other bodies which took place at the height of the holiday season in August. The measures recommended – particularly the Fundraising Preference Service and the "opt in" – will be a disaster for our sector. They are an inappropriate sledgehammer to crack a very tiny nut.

These measures have been recommended by a hastily and poorly prepared report that does not understand the consequences of the recommendations. It is one of the most damaging to the sector I have seen in my 30 years of fundraising.

an inappropriate sledgehammer to crack a very tiny nut

We are facing a challenge of serious damage being done to one of the other pearls of British society: our diverse, powerful and courageous charitable sector. A sector that has vaccinated millions of children, brought clean water to millions of thirsty people, that passionately works to protect our environment, our heritage and speaks out for those who are oppressed and in fear of their lives.

I am proud to have worked for so many brilliant charities, who struggle every day with such big and difficult issues, all over the world. I'm proud to be a trustee of extraordinary charities working with passion, courage and evidence to save lives and make the world a better place. Let's not allow the vital donations for these great charities, big and small, to be compromised by the Daily Mail and all those who want to undermine and fetter our brave and important work.

Live stream of NCVO's #fundraisingreview event



About the author

Lyndall Stein

Lyndall has worked for a wide range of organisations concerned with social justice, including Care International, Bond, Concern UK, ActionAid International, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Big Issue Foundation and the African National Congress.