Should charities keep the Presidents Club donations? What the public say

Among the many issues arising from the revelations about the Presidents Club dinner last week, one for those charities who had received donations from the money raised was whether they should return the money.

Great Ormond Street and Evelina London Children’s hospital charities and the Royal Academy of Music were among the first to say they would be returning donations. Many others said they would not accept any future donations.

We wanted to know what the public thought. We commissioned YouGov to conduct a nationally representative survey.

Keep the cash

The headline result is that one in five think charities should return the donations, with two-thirds saying they should keep the money. The remaining 13% are unsure.

There was not a statistically significant variation by gender, but we did see some difference in attitudes between age groups. Older people were more certain the money should be kept, with 76% of over-65s saying this, compared to 59% of 18-24 year olds and 61% of 25-49 year olds, who were more likely to say they didn’t know.

These age differences may reflect different attitudes to the ethical standards that institutions should act by. But this is a complex matter as there are ethics-led arguments for both keeping and returning the donations. The result may also reflect different attitudes to the issue behind the question, with younger people perhaps taking a firmer view on the seriousness of sexual harassment.

Could turning down a donation make others more likely to donate?

We also asked whether people would be more or less likely to donate to a charity which had previously turned down a donation on ethical grounds. One in five told us it would make them more likely to donate to that charity in future, with one in eight saying it would deter them. Younger people and Londoners were notably more likely to say they would be more inclined to donate in future, with 25% of 18-24 year olds and 29% of Londoners saying they would be more likely to donate to a charity that had turned down a donation on ethical grounds.

As ever with poll questions about intentions though, we have to be very careful. Just because this is someone’s instinct in answer to a poll, we shouldn’t imagine it’s how they’d act in reality. Both the levels of those saying they would be more likely and less likely to donate are probably exaggerated compared to what they would actually do.

Celebrities and sexual harassment

With high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the news, we wanted to know how the public would react to someone accused of sexual harassment offering a donation to a charity. If this happened, it would be far from the first time that a person or organisation attempted to launder their reputation by offering a charitable donation.

We asked about different types of charities to see if the cause would make a difference to how people felt about it. In the case of an environment, animal or veteran’s charity, by more than two to one the public thought they should take the money.

Perhaps surprisingly, even in the case of a charity campaigning against sexual harassment, by 42% to 37% the public as a whole thought they should take the money. But notably, women were marginally against accepting the donation by 40% to 39%.  A donation to a children’s charity prompted broadly similar reactions.

A substantial proportion of the population, around one in four, were unsure in each case. This perhaps reflects the difficult ethical dilemma at hand.

The full results of the poll are available here (PDF, 143KB).

Ethical dilemmas, reputational implications

While on the face of it the results appear clear cut – the public are largely happy for charities to keep the money they got from the Presidents Club – that doesn’t mean the calculation for a charity is a simple one.

First off, one in five people thinking you’re doing the wrong thing is significant. And while we don’t know from this poll, my guess is that their attitudes would be more strongly held than those who are against returning the donation. This isn’t to say that it’s right to follow their lead but it’s worth bearing in mind.

In reality, this is a decision for each charity’s trustees, the volunteers who are in overall charge of the charity, and I don’t think there’s a wrong or right answer.

It’s perfectly rational to err on the side of caution. Especially for household-name brands, their reputation is crucial to everything they do. It’s entirely reasonable for the likes of Great Ormond Street to conclude they’d rather be criticised for trying too hard to do the right thing than for not trying hard enough.

While we’ve seen editorials knocking those charities which have said they’ll return the donations, you can well imagine seeing precisely the opposite if no charities had been willing to do so. (‘Greedy charity bosses, fresh from the Olive Cooke scandal, show yet again that they think the ends justify the means, have no concern for the public mood on sexual harassment’, etc.)

And I wouldn’t like to be in the position of being a children’s charity boss on the Today programme, there to talk about an issue but faced with the prospect of being quizzed on why I thought it was appropriate to take money from the Presidents Club. Returning the money puts the issue to bed straight away and you can move on.

That said, if you hold on to the cash, we know that in this case the public will largely be on your side. (There are also a number of practical problems related to returning the money, but that’s another story.)

As we often see, the ethical dilemmas of accepting difficult donations are far from theoretical for charities. Take a look at this old Netmums thread on whether the Guides should accept a legacy bequest from a paedophile.

In the case of the celebrity accused of sexual assault, so far hypothetical, it seems many charities could be in a lose-lose situation – they’re likely to face criticism for appearing to assist someone in trying to launder their reputation if they take the money, and criticism for being too fussy if they turn it down. Clear communications with the public and stakeholders would be crucial whatever their decision.

Read more:

All figures are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1,636 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25 and 26 January 2018. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).


This entry was posted in Policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Avatar photo Aidan Warner is NCVO’s communications manager. He writes about charity communications. He has previously worked at the BBC, the General Medical Council and Mind, the mental health charity.

Comments are closed.