Why Expect Charities to be Different?

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 12 Dec 2013

Christmas time is charity time. The retail sector is not the only one to rely on Christmas to provide a high proportion of its yearly takings, but charities do likewise. At last count our daily post in December has included an average of three appeals a day. So Christmas seems the right time to think about charities and their relationship to money.

Press and broadcasting media are not slow to find grounds for cynicism and suspicion: the only partial exception to that just now is Nelson Mandela, who has achieved worldwide canonisation with very few questions asked. Even in his case, though, we are beginning to see articles appearing that seek to gently undermine his 'saintliness' (he wouldn't mind that - he did say, after all, that he was just a sinner who was trying.)

So it's not surprising that charities, claiming as they do to be altruistic organisations, fall under particular suspicion, and attract particular blame if it appears they are not 'saintly' enough. So we should not be surprised that the BBC has chosen the run-up to Christmas to screen a Panorama investigation into the affairs of charities, and particularly those who claim to be doing the most. Amnesty International, Save the Children and Comic Relief were all found to be endangering their reputation by the way they raised or invested their money. In the case of Comic Relief, the claim they made to give 100% of any donation to the good cause of development aid was judged a deception because they did not explain that they financed their administrative and fund-raising activities from the interest they earned on the money they received before they allocated it to specific projects.

In the case of Amnesty International and Save the Children the programme purported to show that the charities invested their money in alcohol or armaments manufacture or tobacco - all of which made their money from activities in fundamental conflict with what the charity was designed to achieve. A particular issue was made in the case of Save the Children concerning its partnership with Glaxo Smith Klein, many of whose activities were not seen as healthy for children.

In most cases the charities were given space to develop responses to the suggestion that they were acting hypocritically, and it was clear that none of the investments or partnerships had been entered into lightly or without regard to the possibility of reputational damage.

But the question that should have been asked, and never quite surfaced, was quite simply, "What do you expect?" Since St Paul's Institute began its most recent series of events a constant feature of the conversations has been that money has both changed in its character and acquired a power beyond what it used to have. As a result, as the Michael Sandel event in the Cathedral in 2011 showed very clearly, all sorts of things that money should not be expected to buy are in fact now for sale. Money has, in his words, 'hollowed out our moral discourse' to the point that 'the bottom line' becomes the arbiter of right and wrong, the means of making decisions.

That is the world we inhabit, and the proper response to the Panorama investigation of charities is to point out that we should not be surprised if charities are found to inhabit the same world as we do in our everyday lives. That is a world in which money conditions, and often distorts, our ethical judgments. For charities, as for us, such a world presents us with many serious dilemmas, made sharper in the case of charities by the fact that to forego sources of income on 'ethical' grounds is bound to deprive the charity, and therefore those whom it seeks to help, of resources that could be of benefit. Their executives and committees have constantly to decide which of two unpalatable financial choices they must make.

The issue is further sharpened by the uncertainties of the legal parameters within which they are required to work. 'Fiduciary duty' does not only require maximising financial returns, but the extent to which other considerations are allowed to weigh is an area of considerable uncertainty, and that in itself promotes caution, a caution which leads to maximising the influence of money. Imprinted on my memory of a committee of which I was a member and which was facing just such a dilemma was the menace with which the Chair of the meeting said, 'None of us would like to end up in court': the implication was clearly that that would not happen if we maximised the charity's income; if we allowed ourselves to be influenced by other considerations it well might.

One of the tragic by products of the increasing power and authority of money is that a world is created in which churches and charities quickly become captive to precisely the ways of thinking which have such negative effects on the world's poor. As charitable bodies meet at present they are constantly faced with the need to compromise with the power of money, a power they exist to contradict, or else face the curtailment or even the abandonment of their work. Money doesn't just decide our personal priorities; it decides which charitable options we can pursue. In effect we live in a world in which money is allowed to decide what charity is.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.