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President’s Club: charitable questions

President’s Club: charitable questions

🕔30.Jan 2018

Having spent twenty-five years working in and around the private and third sectors, I’ve been asked a lot about the coverage of The President’s Club dinner, writes Sarah Gee. Did I know about these sorts of events? What would I do if I were a trustee of a recipient charity? And are single sex events of any kind dead in the water?

Personally, I’m not a fan of women-only business events.  I don’t like the idea of excluding half the population – whichever half – as it feels outdated, and I long-realised that if I were to invest time in networking, I didn’t want to limit the gene pool by gender.

When I have been part of Ladies’ Lunches, I can assure you that we’ve never had oiled-up nearly-naked waiters on call as part of the event.  Reader, we usually had enough problem trying to get someone to do the floral arrangements…

That said, in recent months I have found myself in discussions with other professional women where talk has turned to the Me Too campaign.  It’s been cathartic (and horrific) to share stories of everyday sexism, harassment, bullying and far, far worse.

Those conversations wouldn’t have been broached in mixed company, but knowing the scale of the issue has encouraged me and others to share views more widely since then. Wherever there is power, there’s the potential for abuse of that power.

As a fundraiser, have I flirted in the course of securing funds?  Hell yeah – show me a fundraiser who hasn’t flashed a smile.

Does securing support for an arts organisation give senior politicians the right to grope someone who’s simply doing their job, or make it acceptable for city business leaders to propose that joining them in a threesome would lead to more money for a charity, and declining would mean a cut?  Hell no.

Sufficient people – both men and women, let’s not forget – have shared similar testimonies for the tipping point to have been reached.  Time’s up.

Indeed, it’s a sign of how far things have come that The President’s Club dinner is now considered beyond the pale, and that the trustees of Great Ormond Street Hospital have decided to return the donations they received.  Good for them. They’ve made a point, captured the headlines, and done what the trustees feel is right for their charity’s circumstances.

However, such calls are always the trustees’ choice, as their legal requirement is to act in the best interests of their charity.  For some, returning donations might put cash flow, and therefore the charity’s very existence, at risk; for others, the funds are long spent, so giving money back to the donor is not an option.

The Charity Commission has been very clear about this: there is no requirement to return funds, in the same way no charity has to accept funds.

Information on how the money has been raised and any associated reputational risks should be part of any decision; indeed, in some circumstances there may have been restrictions placed on the initial donation which mean that organisations wishing to return a donation have to consult with the Commission to establish whether it’s even possible.

Charities have a responsibility to undertake due diligence in the same way as the private sector should. Even for a charity the size of GOSH, a donation of £500,000 is a sizeable sum, so it surprises me that no representative from the charity seems to have attended the event, or at least raised the instances of sexual harassment at the event with their trustees.

The behaviour of those at this year’s event clearly wasn’t a one-off, as there was a page in the souvenir programme specifically telling men not to touch the hostesses.  If I’d seen such a message in relation to any event linked with my charities, alarm bells would be ringing.  Even if a charity representative hadn’t been in attendance, someone surely must have signed off the charity’s branding in the event programme, and received a copy afterwards?

It should not take an exposé by a national paper for this to be highlighted as an inappropriate way to behave, or to raise money for charity.  I suspect that the main thing to come out of this will be yet another layer of requirement on charities – already increasingly overloaded by regulations and codes of practice – to have far more detailed policies on ethics, accepting donations and establishing their provenance in advance.

Of course, I’m glad that societal attitudes to sexual harassment are changing, but there’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about all this.  Are you really telling me that no journalist from the FT, or any other publication, has ever attended one of these dinners in a personal capacity over the past 33 years?

Do you think that this club was the only one to be running ‘Gentlemens’ Events’ for charity?  That they don’t take place in our city?  I know of two such fundraising dinners in Birmingham where women from local lap dancing clubs act as hostesses, and where the event has been described to me as “not an event ladies should attend”.  The irony was indeed lost on the male business contact who shared this comment.

Even within the charity sector, there’s mounting evidence that fundraising is not sufficiently valued because it’s seen as ‘women’s work’.  An academic report into the increasing feminisation of fundraising in North American and the UK over the past fifty years found gaps in pay and representation at senior levels.

It was suggested that one of the reasons for this was the requirement for relationship-building and organising, which have tended to be regarded as skills at which women are better.  I suspect it’s more caveman-like: historically, most senior decision makers with money have been male.

So, what would I have done if one of the charities where I’m a trustee was a beneficiary of The President’s Club Foundation?  I suspect we would have kept the money, but issued a detailed statement on what we knew about the donation, and when, and why the trustees decided – after much discussion – to keep the money. As with everything in life, honesty is the best policy.

The Charity Commission is offering advice to charities which accepted support from The President’s Club by contacting with The President’s Club in the subject line.

Sarah Gee is Managing Partner of Indigo Ltd, a boutique consultancy based in Birmingham, specialising in helping the arts, cultural and heritage sectors to increase impact and income through more effective marketing and fundraising.

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