Fundraising, Policy

Do we need a coordinating body for domestic disaster appeals?

Our Director of Policy and Research discusses how charities respond to domestic disasters.

This year the UK has had its share of disasters and emergencies, from multiple terror attacks to the Grenfell fire tragedy. 24 hour news coverage and the constant flow of social media can make such horrors seem all-encompassing, yet the public will to give in response remains resilient, if slightly fraying around the edges.

The public’s generosity is arguably testing the fitness of existing systems

This could also prompt the creation of new ones. There have been signs of impatience and rumblings about ‘why does it take so long for my donations to help people – what are you doing with my money’, in part because of the lack of understanding in the media and general public about how charities are governed and the rules about managing charitable funds.

To take one example, consider the London Emergencies Trust (LET), set up after the Westminster Bridge terror attack in March, which killed three and injured scores of pedestrians. As further attacks unfolded in Finsbury Park, London Bridge, and Parsons Green over the year, LET has expanded its grant-making in partnership with the British Red Cross and other agencies. The charity also took over coordination of significant funds donated in aid of the Grenfell victims.

Over the summer public outrage about the failure to look after Grenfell’s residents threatened to spill over onto the LET, as some accused it of withholding funds and not acting quickly enough. They seem to have a better grip on an extremely complicated situation and are getting funds out faster, though the community understandably remains desperate, angry and frustrated. Against a backdrop of serial failures of political leadership and dysfunctional statutory agencies (with the exception of the emergency services and probably the Charity Commission), philanthropy has struggled to fill the gap.

In London at least, the LET appears to be increasingly taking on a coordinating role, almost organically, as repeated crises have arrived. Is this working, or is something wider needed for the whole of the UK? Some commentators are now calling for greater coordination of domestic appeals in response to such tragedies. To an extent, the Charity Commission has been prompting this debate, under the guise of ‘protecting public trust and confidence in charity’. One facet of the argument is that the giving public needs to be assured that donations reach legitimate charities and are used properly, in order to maintain giving. Important of course – but surely an even bigger concern should be whether those affected are getting the help they need in a timely fashion, and whether greater coordination or new institutions would help or hinder that?

Should the Commission be playing a more central role here?

Apart from ensuring that charities conducting appeals are doing it legally and are correctly governed, is it really their business? Or could it be another example of the Commission making a rod for its own back by indirectly taking on responsibility for how individual charities are perceived? Organising, corralling and cajoling organisations to work together could also veer into legitimising or promoting certain causes (likely those that are better resourced, and less local) or appeals to the detriment of others.

The DEC model

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) model has been cited as an example by proponents of a more coordinated approach. Founded in 1968, the DEC is its own charity whose board is made up in part by the CEOs of its 13 members, all organisations with humanitarian relief expertise such as the British Red Cross and Oxfam. However, the DEC has always had an overseas focus – channelling donations raised in the UK for serious, large-scale crises mostly in the developing world.

Part of the rationale for setting up the DEC was the lack of local infrastructure and good governance in many overseas disaster areas. The DEC could help solve this problem with better coordination where there was infrastructure – the governance, systems, people, donors and other resources which existed in the various networks of its founding members.

If such a role is inappropriate for the Charity Commission, do we need a similar type of charity to coordinate domestic appeals at home, or would this just create another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy? Has the Red Cross, working with other partners like the LET, already got things sufficiently covered?

The jury is still very much out and it’s definitely up for debate! And that’s just what DSC is offering you on day two of Fundraising Fair on 30 November, chaired by yours truly. Come along and listen to some excellent speakers give their view, and give us your two pence too!