Would I lie to you……for money?

The recent Save The Children "gagging" scandal, highlighted on Panorama , , may have been just the tip of an ugly grey iceberg. A former member of staff alleged that SCF pulled criticism of a major company because it feared losing potential cash support from them.

Dominic Nutt, the SCF whistle-blower, told Third Sector that he decided to speak out partly because he believed that this behaviour was widespread in the charity sector. Is he right? And if so, what should we do about it?

This was one of the topics for debate at the House of Lords All Party Corporate Responsibility Group (APCRG) meeting, hosted by Baroness Greengross, at which our highly esteemed Chief Exec, Debra, and I spoke last week. Where do or should charities draw the line when trying to secure funding to help their needy beneficiaries? Can the end (more money for said beneficiaries) always justify the means? Well, not in our opinion!

"It's not really helpful to always invite the companies who have really good funding relationships with charities to these meetings," starts Debra, typically provocative, "because it prevents us from getting to grips with the wider problem that they are a very small minority."

We were at the APCRG to discuss the findings from DSC's Company Giving Almanac, launched last summer and Debra duly and deftly reeled off nearly every statistic it took me six months to calculate in under ten minutes! The figures speak for themselves (companies provide only 2% of UK charities' income compared to 43% from the general public; and donations make up only 0.4% of the average top company giver's pre-tax profits, to name but two). But the point we really wanted to hammer home was that it takes more than a few shocking statistics or one whistle-blower, to get the debate moving forwards.

We need to change attitudes towards corporate-charity relationships. It's all very well for the best companies to sit there smugly and talk about shared value and triple bottom lines, but the rest of the corporate world - all 4.8 million of them - are hiding behind these good examples. Lord Aberdare said it all when he told the assembled APCRG that: "in CSR terms, not a lot has changed since the 1980s. We were having the same conversations back then [at IBM]."

Now wound-up, Debra insisted that most corporate-charity relationships force charities to lie. The power dynamic is such that many charities feel that they have to toe the line and take whatever they can get instead of being able to ask for what they really need.

A good example of this came to our attention only this week while talking to a large company which told us of a teleconference with one of their charity grantees. The conversation was around the various ways in which the company could help the charity as part of its employee-involvement programme. The charity agreed but when the teleconference ended the microphone was left on at the charity’s end and they were overheard to say: “why do they keep fobbing us off with these employee programmes? Why can’t they just give us the money?” The company was “disgusted” at this and promptly terminated the charity’s grant. How different that conversation could have been if the power dynamic were different and charities felt that they could be honest about their needs.

The power differential is obvious in another example which came to our attention at an event where a representative of the Co-Operative bank was speaking about their charitable giving programme. The CSR guy told charities not to insult them by sending anyone below the CEO to meetings, to which one charity replied: “and will you do the same?”

But it was the unfortunate corporate in the Lords Committee room who received both barrels when he unashamedly made the point that his company (MITIE, by the by) is not always confident that charities will spend their cash "wisely", therefore they try to avoid cash giving.

It turns out that the company doesn't want to risk charities spending their money on their competitor's goods and services. So, let me get this straight, you'll give them money only if they buy your goods and services with it? I glance nervously at Debra across the grand Committee table. She is, of course, unable to contain herself.

I think the gist of it was (in polite terms): "charities can’t always get donations in kind for services they use, and they don’t have the time to ask all their suppliers for donations in kind. Many companies think they know best but they do not know as much about what charities need as the charities themselves, especially in the case of small charities. The best way to help charities is to give them cash." But I couldn't be totally sure as I'd taken refuge under the table at this point.

We need more whistle-blowers in this arena, whether they are general nuisance-makers like DSC, or more specific ones like Dominic Nutt who I give the last word to, as he summed up his interview: "I'm not saying you should never take money from corporates, but you should engage with them robustly, have an adult relationship with them and reserve the right to speak out if there is a problem." Amen from us!

This blog first appeared in February 2014 in e-news from Directory of Social Change