Think piece6 min read

Captain Tom, JustGiving, The Sun, Virgin Money Giving and the need for a kind of fluorescent transparency

This week The Sun criticised JustGiving for allegedly “pocketing” £308k in fees from Captain’s Tom’s amazing £30m fundraiser. Virgin Money Giving then seized the opportunity to very publicly side with The Sun and take a bold swipe at the rival fundraising giant. What followed was a huge backlash from the third sector, who are very publicly attacking The Sun and Virgin Money Giving and defending JustGiving. There is plenty of debate about this story online but what I’m most interested in, is why it is even a story in the first place and how the fundraising industry can move past the “issue” of fees.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are already familiar with this story but for those that haven’t, here’s what happened:

  • The Sun, Labour MP Neil Coyle and Tory MP David Jones publicly criticise JustGiving for “profiteering” during crises.

The Sun criticise JustGiving for Captain Tom fees

The Sun and MPs criticise platform fees of fundraising platforms

  • Virgin Money Giving back criticism on twitter (EDIT 10th May: the tweet has been deleted)

Virgin Money Giving back The Sun's criticism of JustGiving

  • Individuals and organisations from the third sector lambaste both The Sun and Virgin Money Giving.

Small charities coalition criticise Virgin Money Giving

UK Fundraising astonished by Virgin Money Giving

Public reaction to Virgin Money Giving supporting The Sun

People involved in the third sector know that fundraising comes at a cost and the JustGiving figures will come as no surprise. Everyone knows that The Sun will create whatever narrative they choose to sell papers, without consulting moral or scientific reason. So, what’s interesting to me, is that The Sun presumed this message would gain attention, outrage and/or agreement from the masses. We should therefore ask two important questions: Were they right? and What can we do to make this a non-story?

Were they right?

I found two things really encouraging from this story: First is the way the third sector rallied to defend JustGiving - a fantastic show of industry-solidarity. Second was the response of the general public: comment sections, even on The Sun’s own website, contained a higher percentage of rational folk who defended JustGiving and even criticised The Sun for running the story. This is a really, really positive sign which I’ll touch on again below.

That said, there’s still a very large mass of people who will continue falling for the ruse. Hence comments such as these:

Subsection of the public unhappy with fundraising platform fees

Thus, I’d say The Sun were, as usual, perceptive to what a large subsection of society would believe, be angered by and spread. Educating this subsection of society on the realities of fundraising costs is not something we can do overnight or through media like The Sun. That’s because it’s not a simple, emotional or especially interesting story to tell.

What can we do to make this a non-story?

In my opinion, the fundraising industry’s overt contempt for The Sun’s position echoes a semi-conscious contempt that it holds for a large portion of the general public, who do not understand or appreciate the realities of fundraising costs. The fundraising industry views this subsection of society as ignorant. And their frustration is understandable.

I myself am regularly annoyed when I hear people moaning about charities and fundraisers acting unethically. 99% of the time, such claims are not just unsubstantiated, they are quite literally based on nothing. This is an unfortunate situation, but it is the reality.

What's more, it is precisely articles like this one from The Sun that reinforce the mass naivety that exists around fundraising, and so the Third Sector’s response was the correct one. We should lobby against publications who spew this type of misleading and damaging rhetoric.

That said, I’m not sure how helpful it will be. Are The Sun et al going to change? No. I wonder if the energy spent on venting our frustrations could be better spent elsewhere, perhaps looking inwards at what we, as an industry, can do to progress public understanding and make this a non-story.

“Controversy equalises fools and wise men in the same way - and the fools know it.” - Q.W. Holmes

We shouldn’t be annoyed at a normal person (who does not live inside the bubble of the third sector) for being surprised and angry when they find out fundraising platforms make money. It’s a waste of energy. We should be asking ourselves why they did not know in the first place.

I personally know lots of people who are skeptical about fundraising websites and charities, partly because of what they heard in the mainstream media. These people aren’t ignorant, obnoxious or narrow-minded. They are, for the most part, intelligent, friendly, good people. There are several of them in my family and friendship groups. When given the facts around fundraising costs, these people are reasonable and generally accept the logic.

This is not news. We know that honesty is the best policy when it comes to fundraising costs.

It’s also fair to say that fundraising platforms and charities have come a long, long way in regards to transparency. This is reflected by the fact that most of the public comments on the Sun article were sensible defences of JustGiving.

In 2020 all fundraising websites will contain a section devoted to fees and transparency. However, the number of clicks required to find that section still varies, as does the complexity of its contents. For example, explaining transaction costs, as a percentage of Gift Aid contributions, to someone who does not have a particular interest or understanding of the charity industry, is never going to be easy.

This is why, I believe, many fundraising platforms tend to put this kind of information a few clicks away, often behind a footer link or lost inside FAQs. It’s not nice to look at and the perceived complexity may turn potential donors off. It’s understandable. But I don’t think it’s right.

As fundraisers, we have to make a trade-off between being fully transparent (and a little less pretty) at the risk of losing some donors, and being sort-of transparent (and very pretty) at the risk of p*ssing people off and losing trust later. I believe we should opt for the former.

Take any of the major fundraising platforms, for example, if I’m proactively looking for information on the platform fees, it still takes me two or three clicks to find it. From the platform perspective, this might seem okay. We might congratulate ourselves on having a really clear page or FAQ devoted to fees. This neglects, however, that the average donor probably doesn’t take the time to find it. Consider the typical Captain Tom donor. They’ve probably seen the campaign on TV or social media and been moved by it to quickly donate. Do you think they’ve bothered to research the fees behind the platform? In this light, I don’t think we can be annoyed at the perceived “ignorance” of some donors. You might even ask “why would they know that there are any fees?”

It is true that you can now find information on platform fees much more easily than you could in the past. But because the fundraising industry has come so far in regards to transparency, I think there is a degree of complacency taking place; a lack of self-awareness.

If information on ‘Platform Fees’ became unavoidable, front-and-centre of all fundraising platforms, I believe that stories like this one in The Sun would be completely undermined. They would cease to be news.

Imagine a ‘Platform Fees’ button was in the main nav-bar of all fundraising websites. Many people wouldn’t actually read the detailed information, but the consistent presence of such a button would reinforce and normalise the existence of fundraising fees.

For me, a kind of fluorescent transparency is an important next step in improving donor trust and understanding of fundraising fees. After that, even casual donors will be empowered to compare platforms and make more measured giving decisions. It will take bravery from fundraisers to be this intentful with transparency, but we must try. We must avoid the tempting safety that quasi-transparency offers and aspire to the levels of GiveWell and the like.

Ultimately, if people are shocked to find out that charities and fundraising platforms have costs to cover, we must look inwards and ask ourselves why.

@seanmdonnelly to discuss, challenge and debate 👋


Article updated on: 10th May, 2020