Belfast Telegraph

Dave needs to get down to business over charities

By Janet Street-Porter

David Cameron wants us to give more to charity — an admirable goal most of us would endorse. Last week he talked of “nudging” the public into giving more by pressing a donation key at cash machines, or by rounding-up the total when we pay a bill. Critics say that Dave's Big Society is doomed, but I'm not so cynical.

Most of us already participate in our own way — through community groups, for example — but we don't want to be bossed about by government. We secretly suspect that Dave's Big Plan will mean expensive project reviews and implementation documents written in Whitehall-speak ordinary people can't understand.

If Dave wants to do something radical, he should appoint a management consultant to overhaul the entire charitable sector; treat it like a business, ruthlessly streamline it and ensure that it gives donors value for money.

He's slashed the budget of the Charity Commission by 30%; maybe he should cull the quango altogether and replace it with a tougher control system.

Charity is so trendy these days that joining a fundraising network has replaced going to the gym. Every day I get an invitation to yet another cocktail party, or dinner, and the list of committee members on the expensive bit of card is usually longer than the running order for the event itself.

People who want to burnish their reputation can't wait to set up a foundation, or a trust, to help kids with cancer or women in childbirth. Take Gordon and Sarah Brown — the former PR woman now describes her job as “working for charitable causes”; Cherie Booth has set up a foundation, just like her husband; pop stars from Bono to Sting all have their own charities.

Of course, the vast majority of charities are set up and run by hard-working people who aren't famous and who toil for many hours for nothing, out of the public eye and unremarked upon in the gossip columns.

But what interests me in particular is the growth of ‘vanity’ projects, which can result in dozens of organisations doing the same work. It is total inefficiency — the majority of charities do not share staff or premises and indulge in unnecessary competition for our cash. Charities are monitored by the Charity Commission, which insists on legal compliance, and ‘encourages effectiveness’. Shouldn't they interfere more?

They can inspect accounts, but how do they guarantee value for money? Prince Harry's charity for African orphans, Sentabale, was criticised in 2008 for only allocating £84,000 to projects in Lesotho after raising £1.5m.

Last year, its staff costs were £500,000, with one executive on £100,000. Out of funds of £1.8m, only £1.1m was used for charitable work. Is this acceptable?

The wife of the former ambassador to Washington, Lady Meyer, has been criticised over the amount paid out in salaries by her charity Parents and Abducted Children Together (Pact).

Last year, Pact received £59,056 in donations and £38,000 in grants, but paid out almost £50,000 in salaries to just two staff members, one of whom was Lady Meyer. The problems faced by parents who have children abducted are considerable, but does a charity this small really need two highly-paid executives?

A close look at the accounts of Bono's charity, One Foundation, reveals that in 2008 it raised £9.5m and gave just £118,000 to worthy causes — that's 1.2% of turnover. Running costs came to an astonishing £5.1m. I'm sure Lord Sugar would not think this was a great way to run a business, but, hey, it's charidee.

Instead of beseeching hard-pressed voters — facing increased living costs and possible redundancy — to cough up, Mr Cameron should hand control of charities to the Business Secretary and insist the industry operates more efficiently.

Belfast Telegraph


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