Coffee House

How not to defend the charity sector from criticism

4 February 2016

12:24 PM

4 February 2016

12:24 PM

If you wanted an interview that summed up what is wrong with the charity sector at the moment, you’d struggle to find a better one than Sir Stephen Bubb on the Today programme this morning. Responding to the Sun’s report on Age UK partnering with E.ON to sell expensive tariffs to elderly customers, the head of Acevo decided to attack the Sun for its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, something it has apologised for and which took place when most of its current journalists were still at school. Unfortunately Bubb called Hillsborough ‘Hillshead’, which suggests he has a dodgy track record of remembering mistakes that newspapers have made, unless he was talking about a story about the 1982 Glasgow Hillhead by-election that he had a particular problem with.

He then added:

‘I’m getting very worried about the number of charity-bashing stories there are, so, you know in your introduction you talked about Age UK in the dock. This is an extraordinarily good and important charity, it works locally, it does incredible work with older people, and I think this drip-drip of stories which the government then seem to latch onto, join in the condemnation before we know the facts, that’s very damaging to the sector as a whole.’


He then conceded that he wouldn’t be happy if it turned out that elderly people weren’t getting the best deal, but defended Age UK’s approach to the energy tariffs, and said they were open to the deal being scrutinised. So what’s the problem? ‘Charity-bashing’, apparently.

His whole approach, defending Age UK as a charity that does good work before complaining about stories suggesting that some of its good work could be better, is typical of the moral high ground complex that afflicts charities, political parties and other institutions from time to time. The Church, for instance, was often able to ignore scandals because of the conviction of many involved that it was ‘doing important work’. Political parties often argue that their policies cannot be questioned because they have decided that they are good and that their party occupies the moral high ground and should therefore never be questioned. Charities undoubtedly set out to do good work, but because they are staffed with human beings, they too are capable of doing poor work, as Miles Goslett’s coverage of Kids Company in the Spectator has shown. Indeed, just as scrutiny of political parties and governments aims to stop them from getting away with poor practice, so scrutiny of charities will help them work better too.

Perhaps Bubb is worried that the public will stop donating money to charities if they repeatedly appear in the spotlight. And why might people stop doing that? Is it because charities aren’t living up to the expectations of people who spend months training for marathons in memory of someone they loved? It’s much easier to blame the media for writing about bad practice than it is to blame the subjects of those stories for indulging in it. But in the long-run, demanding that the media only praise the superior morality of the voluntary sector will do that sector and those it aims to serve no good at all.

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Show comments
  • rubyduck

    I think we have already stopped donating to the big charities. Largely because they are an industry, just like so many others feeding on the public purse, and a significant proportion of the people that work for them have safe jobs with decent salaries and career progression that individuals donating would not dream of.

  • Ringstone

    Doesn’t stop at fuel.
    My wife’s 85 year uncles eyesight is failing, so he asked me to sort out his contents renewal.
    I saw Age UK on it so thought it would be fairly kosher but put it through a price comparison to see if I could save him a bob or two – literally half price. What a rip off! They rely on the old dears not having access to the internet and trade on their [questionable] reputations as charities.

  • WFB56

    Are we all supposed to know that Acevo is the lobby group for a bunch of charities? Really, Ms Hardman, this is very sloppy.

  • JonBW


    Bubb is defending a set of vested interests that are every bit as venal and wasteful as the state and private sectors.

  • majorfrustration

    The charity sector has gone the way of local government/NHS – under the radar massive pay rises for CEOs/FD whilst growing number of new appointments as “Directors” of this and that. Politicians have taken their eye of the balls yet again.

    • Wessex Man

      I would have argued with you twenty years ago but wherever you you shop or socialise nowadays you are hassled to give, your mail box is stuffed full of envelopes from charities asking for you to set up direct debits or pay for this or that. Where there used to be real shops in our towns now it’s all Charity Shops.

      give, give give, provide employment to the unemployable!

  • David S

    You don’t understand Isabel. Sir Stephen has to defend the charitable sector against the evil Tories (remember they didn’t even send him a card for his 60th birthday when Ed and Tony and Cherie did)
    and the evil Murdoch lying Tory press, as because of the evil Tory cuts the charitable sector has to do all the work that in happier times under Gordon was done by the Government. He can’t possibly come armed with any facts as he doesn’t have a big enough support team to do any research.

  • Frank

    Bubb is a grommet.

  • Phil

    Charities should certainly acknowledge when there are areas for improvement. But the media should do so as well. There has been a number of poorly researched or deliberately misleading articles, which no doubt contributes to the feeling that the sector is under attack. See this blogpost for just one recent example:

  • frank davidson

    Apart from the dishonesty is the exorbitant salaries of charity CEO’s. These salaries always justified because they need the best people, are what they are because of large “Donnations” from the goverment.

  • anyfool

    So highly paid charity bosses, who are really not that bothered about charity work, have a highly paid spokesman, who is not really bothered, that charities are not bothered.
    Anyone who gives to charities these days, should apply to ant medical charity, that wants an empty head, for brain transplant experiments.

  • The Masked Marvel

    Funny how the BBC are happy to bash the Sun and treat it as being slightly less accurate than the Daily Mash, yet out of the other side of their mouths will suddenly take a Sun report very seriously. When it suits.

  • Ralph

    There are two simple reforms that could help the charity sector, make it a criminal offence to use a charity for political motives and allow only one charity for each cause.

    • GUBU

      Might I suggest a third?

      Bar anyone from managing a charity if they’re wearing enough cloth to dress the population of Hackney.

      • post_x_it

        Including Diane Abbott? That’s a lot of cloth.

        • Wessex Man

          We could house London!

    • Enoch Powell

      I believe it’s already illegal to trumpet politics from the Third Sector.

      However there was a recent article which noted that Friends of the Earth (I think it was), actually has a limited company attached to the charity. The fundraising is done by the company, not the charity.

      The whole thing is a complete scam.

      • starfish

        And the polemical work is done by that company too

        Hence the charity can make outrageous claims concerning ‘carcinogenic dust’ in fracking and get way with it

      • ReefKnot

        But they do trumpet politics – there are 26000 “fake charities ” receiving taxpayer funding , many of whom spend time lobbying and campaigning for their pet causes – supported by your tax payments (whether you like it or not) and also pay their CEOs enormous salaries – again supported by you. Lobbying and campaigning is not real charitable work, unlike saving lives eg RNLI or Air Ambulance, which is real charitable work.
        Charities should not receive any taxpayer funding – they should rely on private donations ( just like RNLI and Air Ambulance have to ) and any who indulge in lobbying and campaigning should also be denied charitable status for tax purposes.
        If their cause is worthy, the public will stump up the funds willingly. If not, they deserve to fail.

      • Dan

        The limited company is there because otherwise they wouldn’t have a way of claiming back VAT on any of their purchases. Nearly all charities have to do this. Because charities can’t charge VAT on their sales , they can’t claim it back on their purchases – that is how VAT works. So they set up an entity which can charge VAT.
        Other entitites in a similar position — banks for instance – do the same thing.

        • Rush_is_Right

          There’s nothing to stop a charity registering for VAT.

  • RavenRandom

    Charities are there to do good and they do make a good net contribution. Unfortunately they’re astonishing inefficient and badly managed (anybody who has worked with/for or tried to get a decision out of one will know this). Because many staff are volunteers there is a lack of hierarchy that leads to bad management and doubtful judgement (see politicisation).
    Nothing wrong with trying to make them a bit more accountable.

    • Andrew Cole

      So if the are so inefficient and badly managed why are their CEOs on such big salaries??? Surely they were put there on those wages to sort out all this inefficiencies and poor management.

      What you describe almost makes them sound like the NHS who have even more of the top wage managers.

      • John Clegg

        Andrew, you’ve almost hit the nail on the head. They are the same set of leftie, “troughing”metrosexual managers and CEO’s who move from charities to the NHS and on to government quangoes and back again. We are awash with them, they pollute every aspect of the “Establishment” now, even the judiciary and the police have been tainted.

        (Sorry folks, I almost forgot the daddy of them all, the BBC!!)

        Blair accelerated the socialist take-over of the Establishment and Cameron has done absolutely nothing to “clean out the stables”

        • bugshead

          Watch Cameron, I predict that he will be making a beeline after 10 Downing Street for one of these overpaid sinecures. That ridiculous man David Milliband was just on the telly, lecturing us all on Syria and how to raise more money for charities, before retreating to his 5* hotel and $600k salary (presumably paid by the charity)

          • GUBU


            I was initially under the impression that Mr Miliband had abandoned politics to pilot Thunderbird 4. The wrong International Rescue, it now appears.

            Shame – he would have looked more human with the strings attached.

  • starfish

    Like most leftiesthey believe if they get things wrong from time to time at least their motives were pure

    Try telling that to the residents of the Gulags!

  • GUBU

    Might I suggest that any noisy controversy about the remuneration of charity bosses should in future be referred to as a ‘Hub-Bubb’?

  • theprog
    • paulus

      As far as I am concerned, not one single executive or director in the Charity sector should be earning six figure sums. It’s a damned disgrace.

      I would also like to know… Do ANY so called advances made by Cancer research UK who say they are totally dependant on charitable donations from which they claim to have single handedly doubled cancer survival rates benefit the public in regards cost of treatment… or are any such discoveries benefiting fellow executives and directors in the pharmaceutical industry to a similar disgusting degree.

  • Gilbert White

    Excellent dental work on Hubb, a do gooder needs a sparkle?