Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Think before you give

One thing that shocked me while working for charity XYZ was how much of the innocently-donated cash didn't go where it was meant to go but was carelessly wasted and frittered away.

Hard-up pensioners would dip into their savings and send us ten-pound notes. Ordinary families would hold fundraising events and send us nice fat cheques. And where did all that money go?

It went on senior managers flying across Britain for inconsequential meetings. Or prestigious suites of office furniture. Or pointless job restructuring schemes. Or new computer databases that never worked properly.

The staff rarely asked if money was being spent wisely. I soon learnt that such awkward questions weren't appreciated and it was better to keep my mouth shut. The managers knew best and ours not to reason why.

Of course I'm not suggesting our entire income was squandered. Most of the money did indeed go on worthwhile projects and helped the people it was meant to help. But the amount that was flung at totally self-indulgent and unproductive activities was extraordinary.

Unfortunately, even if it's a charity helping those in desperate need, people are never as careful with other people's money as they are with their own. They chuck it around casually as if there's an endless supply and lots more where that came from.

Perhaps the public should be more critical of the organisations that solicit their cash and ask for more information about exactly what it's spent on.

We assume too easily that charities are full of principled, scrupulous individuals who would never knowingly waste a penny. But that belief is naive. Charity workers are much like any other workers - some are conscientious, some are just in it for what they can get.

So if you insist on donating to charity, do it sceptically and in the full knowledge that your money might be paying for an executive team-building exercise at a luxury spa in the Cotswolds.


  1. I agree with you Nick.I've relatives whose daughter has a neurological condition. One of the local charities that deals with people with this condition had and extra couple of £1000 that had to be spent before the end of that financial year. So a drinking weekend was arranged for members of the charity and their friends and family.Because of that happening and lots of other irregularities with that charity I am now very fussy with what charities I'd give to or get involved with. I'd hate to think any money I give is funding binge drinking.

  2. That's a truly shocking story, Cyber. I know it's very common for organisations to have underspent at the end of the financial year and to hurriedly splurge the money on something idiotic. But I could think of any number of more constructive things to do with £1000.

  3. makes me sick to my stomach reading this, but I'm not remotely surprised.

    I prefer giving to really small charities, at least they haven't those street-funderaisers that clothesline you and then try guilting you into taking a direct debit with them to justify their £7.50 p/h wages.

  4. That may be wise, I would assume a small charity would spend money more carefully as they simply don't have the spare cash to squander. But then again, there've been stories of one-person charities here in NI that've been scamming the public something rotten. So how do you tell the goodies from the baddies if all you see is a few glossy leaflets?

  5. What's your view on Chuggers?

  6. Hi Nick:
    First of all good luck on the job-hunting scheme. Let's twist that on its ear and say let's hope the very best job FINDS YOU!! yay!
    I was on two different chsritable boards and quit them both, in disgust.
    Pork barrels. 'Nuff said.
    I donate quite a bit - not quite a tithe but close, but always, always ask for financial statements and if the admin/ohead is too high I pass. Case in point are the floods of promo mail and/or telephone beggars. Far too much money spent on slick expensive outsourced promo.
    There are many, many worthwhile causes. It is best to do some serious homework before parting with hard earned dollars.

  7. I was on the board of a housing association in NI for 3 years and was impressed at how uncorrupt the whole thing was, despite admittedly the odd fancy dinner. Perhaps this is because housing associations in NI are closely audited, also board members don't receive any payment.

    However, after Nick's experiences in the Unnamed Charity (and I'm not sure how THEY were audited) I will never donate money to a charity again. I do give all my old clothes to charity shops though, and that adds up to quite a bit!

    I also think there's a real problem with staffing in the charity sector. It seems like there's a big division between the incredibly dedicated staff who work themselves into the ground, and others who do the minimum, go off sick a lot, take time off for 'childcare', and then bring a discrimination case when it looks like they're going to get caught.

  8. Manuel - I detest chuggers (i.e paid fundraisers who accost you on the street). Many people object to cold-calling and being buttonholed on the pavement but charities persist in doing it because a small minority respond. A bit like junk mail. Chuggers should be swept up by the street cleaners and sent to landfill.

    www - Absolutely, the best job will find me! Glad to hear you quit the pork-barrel trusts. And very wise to check the admin costs before you fork out. As you say, do the homework before throwing good money after bad.

  9. Jenny - I don't know much about how housing associations are run but from what you say it sounds like a healthier financial set-up. Mind you, there're plenty of ways of losing dodgy spending in the accounts and hoodwinking the auditors!

    I haven't experienced many habitual shirkers myself. I worked in a very conscientious team who often put in extra hours, but I'm sure charities have their share of shirkers like every other occupation.

  10. It just occurred to me how similar the words "scrupulous" and "scurrilous" are.

    Years ago, I managed a domestic violence shelter which depended on grants and donations. The shelter itself was in horrible disrepair and my office was a slum, while the Director's office across the street, (the architect of which was her husband,) was a beautiful new building with a pool for the batterers who were forced to attend intervention meetings to avoid jail time.

    The Director constantly flew to "Important Meetings" on Caribbean islands and Europe while chastising me for feeding the women who stayed in my shelter. It was obscene.

    A year after I was fired for such "unprofessional" behavior as actually caring, the shelter burned down because of faulty wiring. Luckily, no one died, but abused women no longer had a safe refuge in that town.

  11. Wow, that's a real horror story, Heart. It almost sounds like a piece of fiction, it's so incredible. And so typical - those like you who're actually doing the caring and trying to help people can be casually got rid of by the pampered figureheads who do no tangible caring for anyone.

  12. Aww Nick . . I've blogged about this before as well. I refuse to give money to people who ring from call centres. Who's paying for all their wages. I did get roped into a collection for the Heart Foundation this month but they use volunteer suckers like me so I hope most of the money goes to their appeal. I now support one charity a year rather than half a dozen small donations. A vicar friend of mine suggested direct donations to Church charities and missions was probably the best option. Oh and here a registered charity must give you a receipt for donations over $5 and there's a tax deduction for anything over $5

  13. Baino, I've never been contacted by a charity call centre, that must be an Oz thing. Yes, it's good that volunteers are not being paid to collect money but that can also mean they get exploited if they end up working long hours for nothing. Church charities and missions? Are they better run than other charities?

  14. Hi Nick,

    This has always been one of my biggest bugbears when it comes to donating to charities. Such a shame that a big chunk of the funds given in good faith end up being swallowed up into a bureacratic chasm when the people in need go without...

    Really like your spot Nick, have added you to my blogroll! :-)

  15. What a good idea to get a hold of the accounts and see how much money is spent on admin before donating.

    I like to give to charity by supporting charity shops, both donating and buying. It's ethical, useful and saving the planet too. I very rarely buy new clothes.

    I prefer giving my time rather than money to charities, for example by volunteering as a counsellor for organisations where people wouldn't otherwise have access to counselling.

    The way money is spent in charities is shocking. Closer auditing would seem to be a step in the right direction. I wonder what else could be done.

  16. I'm also hesitant giving to charities that work in countries with totally corrupt governments. The type of country that I'd assume 90% of what is given to the charity ends up elsewhere.IS this a common assumption?

    I also wonder about staffing in charities, sometimes there seems to be more staff receiving wages than funds or help being given to the people the charity is meant to help.

    On the slightly more positive side I met a guy last week who runs a charity and have offered to help him publicise it.This charity is all he eats sleeps and breathes. It was obvious when I was shown around the charity that it and he was genuine and he was a people person especially the people the charity helps.I need to talk to him some more before I mention what the charity is. I don't want to give any misleading or incorrect information out about the charity.

  17. Shelly - Yes, of course there has to be some bureaucracy to keep the organisation going, but so often it gets bloated out of all control. Thanks for the link - I've done the same for you!

    Hullaballoo - I support charity shops too, that seems okay. Especially when they're usually staffed by volunteers. And volunteering rather than giving money is good.

  18. Cyber - Yes, I think that's a common assumption that money going to countries like that probably ends up in the wrong hands. And I also agree some charities seem to have an excessive number of people on the payroll. Intrigued by this charity you mention - I look forward to more details!

  19. Hi NIck,

    A few years ago there was a big scandal involving a charity called the United Way. Apparently the big shots were being paid exorbitant salaries and living a jet set lifestyle.

    I prefer to give by giving my time. I volunteer several times a year at a homeless shelter. That way I know what I give goes to those who need it.

  20. I agree with volunteering instead of chucking money out without knowing if it's really a charity doing its job properly or not. For those who claim to have no time at all for volunteering a couple of hours a week, probably a good option would be to sponsor a child and monitor the reports on what is spent on what.
    Great post.

  21. MDC - This is amazing, everybody seems to have some horror story to tell about dubious charities. Great that you volunteer at the homeless shelter - that's a really worthwhile cause.

    Gaye - Sponsoring a child sounds like another good idea. There are plenty of unwanted and orphaned children out there who desperately need help.

  22. I don't know Nick, just have a friend who's right into that thing and he reckons it's the best way to get funds directly to causes by putting it into the hands of those who actually use it. Mind the causes may not be the ones you want to support. One avenue I particularly like is Habitat for Humanity who take not just money but labour. A friend's son has just returned from 3 weeks in Fiji helping to build a church and housing and one of Clare's friends is in Africa building huts! I guess it's like anything, you have to be judicious and do your homework.

  23. Baino, it certainly makes sense to get the money directly to the people who need it rather than it going through pen-pushing intermediaries. And actually helping to put up buildings sounds much more beneficial than popping coins in a collecting box.

  24. That's always the case if you work in non-profit - there's an incredible amount of wastage!

  25. Con, I suppose that's generally true, although commercial businesses can still waste plenty of cash. Look at all the money banks lose from totally predictable mortgage debts. Or from their reckless expansions into other countries which lose millions.

  26. I definitely saw a lot of waste at the non-profit I used to work at and a lot of it was around travel expenses and blackberries for people who mostly had office jobs. It was just really ridiculous. I know they do a lot of good but they're so rife with corruption as well.

  27. Ah yes, travel expenses - there's a much abused perk. When I started work at charity X and went to London for my induction training, I was booked business class on the most expensive airline. The next time I flew over, I stipulated the cheapest possible flight.