Build back trust in charities? Presidents Club antics can be no more
29 January 2018 | By Cause4 staff
In an era of #MeToo, #TimesUp and a second anniversary Women’s March taking place only this weekend, it seems rather unbelievable that a ‘Men Only’ charity gala took place in 2018, exactly 100 years after some women won suffrage.
Yet with the world’s ears pricked up to institutional sexual harassment, this week’s Financial Times exposé of the Presidents Club’s 33 year-old ‘most un-PC event of the year’ was unveiled into a post-Weinstein epoch where society is finally ready to no longer turn a blind eye.
And what makes this furore particularly stand out is the sector in which it took place: the bastion of doing good that is the charity sector.
The Presidents Club fundraising event last Thursday has forced the issue of the public’s perception of charities to rear its ugly head once more. Guidance from the Charity Commission – only published just over a year ago – advised Trustees to protect their charity’s reputation by taking into account how fundraising activities may damage supporter and public perception. Yet the three Trustees of the Presidents Club Charitable Trust made the decision that their ‘Men Only’ gala (offering prizes like breast enhancement surgery to ‘Spice Up Your Wife’) would continue to go ahead. Perhaps the Trustees of the Club may have felt reassured by the thought that the event would go unnoticed. This week’s news proved them wrong, showing that such toxic philanthropy will henceforth be forced to rewrite its morals.
Though these revelations may strike a chord of dread into those who have fought for the charity sector to regain public trust, there are perhaps some small positives to be taken from this story. Not least, the uproar that has followed this news story proves that society is ready to combat deeply-rooted unpleasant behaviour that had formerly held great magnitude.
Reflecting on these events, here are a few words from the @OfficialCause4 team:
The beneficiary charities decision not to accept the donations from the Presidents Club demonstrates strong thinking and leadership from those in charge. It wouldn’t have been an easy decision to turn down these contributions. Having a strong ethical fundraising policy in place can be useful in identifying where your charity stands on receiving donations from questionable organisations, or can prevent facing a confrontational media storm. Where the bigger charities have done this well, many other charities may not have been able to make these tough decisions as proactively.
Not to mention the obvious, the Presidents Club once again highlights a significant concern with events fundraising: low return on investment (ROI) and lack of focus on the cause. Events and dinners too often expose charities to high levels of risk, and in the case of Presidents Club (whose 2016 event had an ROI of just 1.6% compared to the sector average of 24%), this risk has come at a very high price. Large dinners have their place, but not at the expense of opportunities to talk, listen and understand, and certainly not at the expense of our morals.
In the intense scrutiny that will follow, I hope that we might be able to focus on the abhorrent behaviour of the attendees, rather than the supposed charitable nature of the Presidents Club. The Trust’s sole purpose was its annual event (which cost around £600,000 in 2016), and the income generated from the event was distributed to a variety of charities.
Looking at the objectives, constitution and activities of the Trust, it is hard to be convinced that it had charitable intentions at its heart. Instead, its charitable status seems to have been a facilitator for this annual lewd behaviour. I hope that charities can distance themselves from the Trust and its event, perhaps through a positive counter-response that celebrates the integrity of fundraising.
The Presidents Club dinner was a hot topic of discussion in the office this week, with conversations ranging from our incredulity at hostesses being asked to wear matching black underwear, and sign non-disclosure agreements they were not able to read or keep a copy of, to discussions surrounding what use the money raised would be put to now. The money has been raised, and has to be used in one way or another. We asked ourselves what would happen with the returned funds, and pondered the possibility of redirecting the funds towards charities which deal with the topics now being discussed in the public forum, such as charities supporting sexual assault victims. As a charity’s memorandum and articles should contain a dissolution clause stating what should happen to the remaining assets, could the Presidents Club reroute their funds to another worthy cause?
The behaviour was deplorable, possibly unlawful; the Trust's charitable intent very dubious; and the only sound judgement shown by the Trustees in the end was to close it down.
But I'm reluctant to praise the big household charity names that have returned the funds – this is not a tidy remedy, and it does not put the directors on a higher moral plane. If GOSH and others need public donations to carry out their vital work then presumably returning previous donations will reduce the monies available in neonatal units and sibling therapy rooms.
Of course, the charities rightly guard their reputations and will maintain that keeping the money would endanger future donations. Perhaps, but most big charities ride the storm – Comic Relief's investments in tobacco and arms producers have not dented public enthusiasm.
Donations from the event had been accepted by the charities over many years, and the nature of the event was no secret. I believe a more level-headed response from the charities would be to condemn the conduct but explain your impact and the bad consequences of returning the funds.
The funds will have to go somewhere. Despite the appealing logic of redirecting the funds to women's rights and opportunities for girls, under cy-prÌ¬s rules the donors' original intention still stands; restricted for children's medical care. The big charities have, for the sake of their morals, thrust a dilemma at other (likely lower profile and less resilient) charities for sick kids, who will be asked whether they'll accept funds deemed tainted by their peers.
Now that the Presidents Club is winding up that inconvenience will likely fall to the Charity Commission. If only charities, especially the highest profile ones, treated the donating public as adults in a complicated world.
What do you think? Can we take anything at all that is positive from such shocking events? We’d love to hear your thoughts.