The Presidents Club: lessons for the future

In less than ten years, the words of Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, have become a cliché; and, like most clichés, it’s because it’s true: ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.’

It would be overdoing it a bit to say the disgusting behaviour at the Presidents Club dinner has provoked a serious crisis for the charity sector, but it does pose a challenge – and also an opportunity to prevent a crisis erupting in the future.

From what we know from the FT’s powerful reporting, it was an excuse for degrading, criminal conduct. I’m glad it has been exposed and an end put to it. I hope the fall-out has amplified what is and isn’t acceptable.

The challenge is that it was done in the name of raising funds for charity. As always, the danger is to our reputation. If the millions of people who donate to charity lose faith in its integrity, the money will start to dry up. So – what is the public’s view of the recipients of the money raised at the recent dinner? NCVO commissioned a survey of the general public from YouGov. Its findings provide some important pointers to the way forward.

Moreover, this debate could not be more timely, for there are issues here for the sector’s regulator, the Charity Commission; and in the same week as the Presidents Club scandal came to light, the government announced that Baroness (Tina) Stowell would be the Commission’s new chair. She could not have a trickier issue at the top of her in-tray.

Our poll

We asked whether the public thought the charities involved should return funds that had previously been donated.

Just 20 per cent of the public think the charities should give the money back. A sizeable majority, 67% say they should keep the donations. (The remaining 13% don’t know.) There are some slight variations by demographic group – older respondents are keener than younger people on charities keeping the money – but in every single group, by age, gender, party support, social class and region, the proportion saying the charities should hand the money back are substantially outnumbered.

These findings should take some of the pressure off charities wondering what to do with their Presidents Club cash. That is not to say they should keep the money regardless – each charity will have its specific reputation with its own donor community to consider. But this episode does not look like creating a wider reputational nightmare for the sector as a whole. That said, if one in five of the public think that charities in general would be doing the wrong thing in keeping the money, there will be some charities in specific areas that may need to take extra care about their sources of income.

You can read more about the poll as a whole and what it may mean for reputation in this blog from NCVO’s media lead, Aidan Warner.

Lessons for the future

What, then, are the lessons for the future? My own view is that there should be zero tolerance not only of the kind of behaviour reported at the Presidents Club dinner, but also of charities appearing to  associate themselves with such behaviour – even if none of those that received money from the Presidents Club knew what was going on.

Of course, everyone recognises that it is impossible to police the way every donation is raised.

Here, then, is a practical proposal. Where charities raise a significant proportion of their income from events that they have not themselves organised – such as the Presidents Club dinner – do they not now have a responsibility to inform themselves of the full nature of such events?

Indeed, one would have thought that the organisers of such events, if they are genuinely well-meaning, would wish to involve the charities they support. Plainly that did not happen with the Presidents Club.

Up to last week, ‘we did not know what was going on’ was a plausible defence, and one that most members of the public seem to accept on this occasion. But we need to be clear – it is not a defence that will wash in future.

The Charity Commission

I hope the Charity Commission comes to a similar conclusion. I am optimistic. Its new leadership team, led by Baroness Stowell and the relatively new chief executive, Helen Stephenson, deserves the sector’s full support. I do not share the view that Baroness Stowell’s appointment should be attacked as that of a Tory stooge – just as I reject criticisms from the right of charities that appoint Labour party members to senior positions. (We should note that Baroness Stowell, a former Leader of the House of Lords, intends to resign the whip and membership of the Conservative Party if appointed.) One of the glories of our sector is that it draws together people from many backgrounds and many opinions, and finds ways for them – us – to come together for the common good. Let us judge people by their actions, not prejudge them by their affiliations.

YouGov questioned 1,636 respondents across Great Britain on January 25 and 26. Full results can be viewed at yougov.com.

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Peter Kellner is chair of NCVO

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