When hard sell charities make it hard to give
Charities have moved from a modest Mary MacKillop model to a flashy, superficial Angelina Jolie one. Many are more mega mall than soup kitchen, they’re black tie, red carpet, all big bash and flash.
Australia has hundreds - maybe thousands - of charities, and clusters of them compete against each other for the same money, for the same aims. It’s only natural they are trying to find a competitive edge – but at the same time we expect them to be entirely ethical and any suggestion they are preying on the vulnerable is enough to make many put their cash back in their pocket.
News Ltd investigations have revealed that fundraisers for major charities are being told to target the rich, the “vulnerable, elderly and dying” and to avoid the ‘POYSN’ – the “poor, old, young, stupid and non-English speakers”. Marketing companies employed by charities tell doorknockers they can earn up to $3000 and become rich.
At a recent convention, charity representatives went to a seminar advising them how to benefit from death. The seminar was littered with graveyard humour, including a joke about how people often choose to bequeath money to health, animal and water-safety organisations – “So the best legacy strategy for you lot is to find a child with cancer, on a donkey, in a lifeboat, and you’re ready to make millions”, UK ‘bequest expert’ Richard Radcliffe told the audience.
In a 2010 presentation, the callous legacy guru warned that the older people get, the less money they have (“But deaths will go up to 33,000 within 10 years!”) and that the “security of families threaten legacies”.
He also said – ambiguously – “They (the people considering bequeathing money to charity in their will) want to know you are cost effective – they can’t complain when dead.”
It sends a shiver down Australia’s collective spine to think of charities becoming ambulance chasers.
The Productivity Commission estimates there are about 600,000 not-for-profits in Australia, but most of them are not ‘economically active’ and it’s not clear how many of these are charities.
What is clear is that charities are too opaque. In October the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission will kick off to improve transparency, but at the moment the waters are murky, the estimates rough.
It’s hard to find out how much money donated actually makes it through to the other side (in one South Australian case, a charity was giving less than a cent in the dollar). In SA charities now have to release their financial information, but how do you factor in volunteer time, or good works done as opposed to money spent?
The thousands of charities are all different shapes and sizes, some incredibly well-run, others plagued by scandals, self interest and inefficiencies.
So when the public see charity managers driving expensive cars, or when poor people see the constant stream of fancy galas and pictures of designer-clad rich folk in the social pages, and when you realise that this enormous sector gets a big boost from our taxes, it’s easy to see why there’s a stink in the air.
Gina Anderson, a Philanthropy Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact says charities do not have the same drivers to merge, so there’s duplication. And there’s no real pressure to become more efficient or more transparent.
At the same time – as UnitingCare Wesley’s Mark Henley told The Advertiser yesterday – there is increasing competition for money. So for some charities, it’s desperate times calling for desperate measures.
It’s a tough enough sell already for charities. They fill the holes between business and government, and ask for money from people who may feel that through taxes they already give enough to help the needy.
Philanthropy Australia point out that the ‘less sexy’ charities have to compete against the ‘more sexy’ charities. There are dozens of breast cancer charities, to pick an obvious example, replete with celebrities and photogenic people and the word ‘breasts’. What’s a bowel cancer organisation to do?
Then there are the multitudes of small charities, run by well-meaning but inexperienced people. Then there are the straight-out scam artists, or those in it for the glory, or those who are in it more for the lobbying opportunities, the personal glory, or the party invites.
And they all want your money. And in the meantime people may be only too happy to find an excuse not to give, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
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