The Great Charity Scam

12 Jul 2015

A recent undercover operation by the UK’s Daily Mail has revealed a shoddy practice employed by most of the charity giants of their call centres using voracious cold calling methods to raise money for their organizations. If cold-calling normal healthy people isn’t bad enough, the extensive cases of elderly people, including many with Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, being bullied to part with their precious money has raised such a furore that the UK Government is rushing in legislation to ban the practice with immediate effect. Not before time.

I have long held mixed views regarding the charity industry. On one side they do raise billions of dollars for good causes, highlight specific problems in our world and have numerous employees that no doubt have the most genuine of intentions.

However, on the other side there is such a catalogue of malpractices, duplication and mis-spending of funds that the general public would think twice before donating their money – which David Cook’s book ‘The Great Charity Scandal’ of 2014 exposed much of the reality behind the industry.

The number alone are astounding. There are more than 195,289 registered charities in the UK alone that raise and spend close to £80 billion a year and employ more than a million staff. In England and Wales this includes 1,939 active charities focused on children; 581 charities trying to find a cure for cancer; 354 charities for birds; 255 charities for animals, 81 charities for people with alcohol problems and 69 charities fighting leukaemia. All have their own executives, administrators, fundraisers, communications experts and offices, but few will admit they are doing exactly the same thing as other charities. Two decades ago there were 70 international charities operating in Ethiopia, today the figure is close to 5,000.

This duplication alone is hugely expensive but the picture becomes even more dark when the allocation of funds is broken down. Exorbitant salaries, staff costs, strategy development, membership costs, ‘education and communication’, ‘research, policy and advisory, media costs, campaigning and fundraising are not what most people expect their money to be spent on. And yet a large percentage of all the funds being claimed to go the front line is apparently spent on exactly that, with probably only between 20-50% of all funds generated going to the people who need it.

With such growing size and costs, many charities have become hungry monsters, needing ever more of our money to feed their own ambitions. And while, as I wrote above, have no doubt that many people working in the industry have only the best intentions, it isn’t beyond reasonable expectations that, for others, an equally prime motive is that it’s great to have on your CV. Two years working for the Red Cross in Kenya ‘helping the poor’ is definitely worthy to mention and is exciting. But isn’t there something unedifying of so many thousands of aid workers doing just that in the same area for competing organizations – all being paid well and living a comfortable life whilst those who they are helping continue to live on scarcity.

There is also a sense of the ‘we know best’. In the Nepal earthquake it was somewhat astounding that my skills, equipment and circumstances – speaking Nepalese, ex-qualified EMT, efficient satellite communications equipment, extremely fit and acclimatized to 6000m, fully self-sufficient in expedition food and equipment and a large public following – were completely ignored by the 10 large charities my team wrote to. All of them either didn’t bother to reply or asked for money only.

Yet behind this face, hundreds of volunteer groups did the work that needed to be done, which the giants couldn’t hope to manage, at their own expense, time and efforts - a number of whom I worked with on my own quest. Many continue to do so – my friends Bibhu Thakur and Mission Himalaya, Maya Sherpa and the Everest Summiteers group, Sue Harper Todd, Tri Clay and many others. Any moneys given to these organizations will, unlike the monoliths of the charity industry, indeed go to those who need.

I hope that, in the UK, the Government will have the courage to cut down and streamline the industry to a manageable number of organisations per cause. And for those who raise funds for a disease, condition or disaster, perhaps a re-think of who you raise money for wouldn’t go amiss.

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