Despite recent media coverage the people of Fife can, and should, trust charities.
I’ve conducted investigations into wrongdoing in charities and have seen some serious problems within a small number of them across the country. I know charities better than most people, having directly advised and supported hundreds over many years. I trust them and the people who run them – they are hard-working, decent, honest people who continue to impress and inspire me.
That doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong or that an individual might not seek to harm somebody. Let’s ensure some wrongdoing somewhere, as serious as it may have been, does not result in services being needlessly lost to our most vulnerable citizens.
Trust in Charities declining in Scotland
I say this because I woke up this morning to what is, for me and many others at least, a worrying headline on the front page of The Scotsman: “More than a quarter of Scots don’t place trust in charities”. This is taken from an IPSOS Mori poll conducted in late 2017 but surfacing more prominently in light of the media coverage of the sex scandal issues facing Oxfam, and now Save the Children. People are cancelling direct debits to charities and millions of pounds have already been lost as a result.
Like the vast majority of decent people I am outraged that such things go on at all, let alone in the name of charity and by people being paid by charities to help some of our most vulnerable citizens. That they would abuse their positions of power is grotesque and unacceptable.
But I am also angry and embarrassed that these things were not dealt with properly within our sector at the time. That was wrong and the leaders of those organisations need to be held to account. The people at the top need to know that it is their responsibility to thoroughly investigate such allegations and take difficult decisions and do the right thing when required to do so. Protecting the reputation of a charity is important, but it must never be more important than protecting your service users/clients/beneficiaries.
Most organisations operating in Fife are locally-owned – owned by the communities they serve. The Trustees of these charities are very close to those they support – in geographical terms at least. Communities can directly influence what these charities do and who runs them.
As Chief Executive of a voluntary sector support agency, you may well expect me to dismiss wrongdoing in our sector or perhaps to even make excuses for it. I do not.
Being a Trustee
I’ve been a Trustee of a number of charities and have been the chair of the Board of Trustees of national and local charities. These are hugely responsible positions – regardless of the nature of the work of the charity. It’s not particularly difficult to be a good Trustee (we provide free training on that!). There are places to go for advice and support (indeed, that’s one of our main roles here at Fife Voluntary Action). At all times I felt that I had been afforded a position of public trust and that it was my duty to uphold that trust and serve the public to the best of my ability and with inherent core values such as honesty, integrity and respect. Having supported hundreds of organisations over the years, I can confidently tell you that just about every other Trustee believes (and embodies) that too.
Lack of trust leads to lack of services
So, I’m not making excuses or seeking to diminish just how bad some of these situations are. So why am I writing this? I’m writing this for two reasons – firstly, Fifers should absolutely trust charities and secondly, diminishing public trust in Scotland’s charities will irreparably damage our society. I really do believe that. It will put our most vulnerable citizens and communities at greater risk – risk of the worst excesses of poverty, isolation, discrimination, inequality, ill health, crime, unachieved potential and social injustice. Trust in charities leads directly to better lives.
I’m not saying that you should continue to support charities even if they do wrong. That’s entirely a decision for you to take based on the facts available to you and your own values and conscience. I am saying that you should not tar all charities with the same brush.
For every charity scandal you can name, I could tell you about dozens of examples of tremendous, selfless work that changes lives. Research and analysis over recent years has shown that people working in the charity sector are paid less than equivalent roles in the public or private sectors. Our sector attracts good people who want to do good. And the overwhelming majority of people I’ve met and worked with only do good.
However, I have to accept that there are some people in society who seek to harm others. In recent months you are likely to have read about sex scandals in politics, the media including the film industry, global technology firms, armed forces, sport, education, health and a lot of private businesses. I don’t see the media clamouring for us to assume that all such organisations or their senior people are up to no good, hiding wrongdoing or, heaven forbid, condoning such behaviour.
Charities are already facing unprecedented challenges
The timing for all of this is of particular concern to me. We have over 3,000 community groups, voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises operating in Fife today. Funding is getting harder to come by, donations are down and yet costs are going up and demand is increasing for most organisations.
As austerity continues to bite hard, mostly affecting those who can least cope, public sector budgets are reducing and the voluntary/third/charity sector is expected to step in. And we do. Almost without fail in every single case.
This is thanks to the tremendous commitment, goodwill and support from our staff and volunteers and to the many people in our communities who give their time, skills and money to help. Despite staff in our sector being typically paid less, getting fewer holidays and considerably worse pensions than most people in other sectors. Yet many are working more hours, in challenging circumstances and rarely turning anybody away.
Charities benefit us all
If we all stop for a minute and think about it, we have all directly benefited from the work of the charity sector – if not directly for ourselves then a loved one, from hospices, cancer and other health conditions support organisations, foodbanks, elderly day care, lunch clubs, family support, homelessness prevention, substance misuse, counselling, advocacy, community transport, culture and sports organisations and many, many more. Without essential support from local people these organisations would not exist and could not help the tens of thousands of people in Fife who benefit directly, every single month.
Those guilty of abuses of power and those in authority who fail to act should always be held to account and punished appropriately. All organisations in the sector do not deserve to be punished due to the actions of a tiny minority. I would therefore end by urging each of you to:
1. Have pride and trust in the fantastic and selfless work undertaken by tens of thousands of staff and volunteers in Fife’s third sector – thanks to your support and generosity they will be there when you or a loved one needs them;
2. Consider finding ways of ensuring valuable services provided by charities are not lost to our communities – through donating money (or perhaps leaving a legacy in your will), or donating your time – becoming a fundraiser, a volunteer or joining a committee (see www.fva.org/volunteer for immediate and free support to do this – we have over 700 unique opportunities across Fife right now!)
3. Speak to us here at Fife Voluntary Action, or the charity regulator in Scotland (www.oscr.org.uk) if you have any concerns about how a charity is being run or want to support an organisation that you can be confident is being run well. You can call us during normal office hours on 0800 389 6046 or visit www.fva.org
I’d be happy to describe more about the work of local charities in Fife and our role in supporting that with anybody who wishes to get in touch.