The Charity Business

Recently, we had an unexpected visitor, who knocked on the door in the early evening. She was a young girl, maybe nineteen, and she announced that her name was Chen, and that she represented the Macmillan Cancer charity. She had her ID, and was clearly genuine. I could see other young people on the street wearing the same Macmillan sweatshirt worn by Chen. Where I live is a former council estate. It’s not a prosperous area, and I doubted whether they would have much success in their efforts. I stopped Chen from launching into her spiel, and told her I would not be signing up for a direct debit. I’m not heartless, and I know that Macmillan do excellent work, but I had my reasons, which I’ll come to.

I tweeted Macmillan:

They replied:

The link is instructive. It shows how fundraising is contracted out, so that Chen, who I suspect is a student trying to earn some extra cash, is not in any real sense a “representative” of the charity, just an agent whose job is to extract as much money as possible from the people on whose doors she knocks. What the Macmillan website doesn’t specify is how much Chen and her colleagues earn. So I asked:

The response:

I wondered what an average pledge would be. When I gave to charities such as Macmillan, my pledge was usually either £5 or £10 a month. The minimum wage is £5.30 an hour for under 21 year-olds, and £6.70 for over 21s. There are additional costs for employers, and Macmillan say they may be paid over minimum, so a very conservative estimate of the cost to whoever employs these charity fundraisers is at least £6 an hour, and quite possibly considerably more. I asked Macmillan a hypothetical question:

They did not reply, a tactic which seems to be one they use often, judging by their Twitter timeline. Maybe they didn’t bother with me because the answer is self-evident. I indulged in a little speculation. Let’s say they have 500 Chens knocking on doors around the country, and the campaign runs for a month. The website says that they will be active between 3 and 9 pm, so that suggests a six hour day. That’s a cost of at least £36 a day per person. For 500 of them for a month, that’s well over half a million quid, and that’s before you factor in the cost of transport, ID, training, printed material, sweatshirts and so on. I can’t help feeling it would be much easier to approach some well-heeled millionaire at one of the lavish charity events they organise and suggest they stump up a few hundred thousand.

The doorknockers are, of course, an extension of the chuggers who hunt in packs on the high street. It’s the same group of young people trying to earn a bit of beer money by harassing commuters in the name of whoever’s logo is on their sweatshirt that day. I presume that these aggressive methods of fundraising are effective, or the charities wouldn’t use them. I tried to work out what the financial benefit to Macmillan was from their published accounts. The information produced for public consumption suggests that £47m out of a total of £215m raised came from what they term ‘direct marketing.’ So that’s about one fifth of their income, but that would have to be set against the cost of raising it. That information is not that easy to find, but it is there, listed as ‘cost of generating voluntary and legacy income.’ So that’s not just the chuggers and the doorknockers, it’s the cost of the activity of the 562 people that Macmillan employ as fundraisers. It’s not clear from the accounts if this includes the casually employed ones like Chen. The ‘How we spent our money’ section gives a figure that roughly coincides with the one on the detailed accounts. It’s £68 million. Out of a total expenditure of £221m, then, nearly a third goes on fund raising.

Another aspect of the way Macmillan and similar charities operate is that they employ chief executives who are paid more than the Prime Minister. Macmillan seem coy about the specifics. A year ago, the acting chief executive, Lynda Thomas, was appointed to the permanent position, when ‘A spokeswoman for the charity said that Thomas’s salary had not yet been finalised, but she was paid the equivalent of just under £161,000 a year as interim chief executive.’ In the current accounts, her salary is not specifically mentioned, but in section 10 on staff costs, we learn that over fifty staff are paid more than £60,000 a year, and that one employee, presumably Ms Thomas, is stated to be paid between £180,000 and £190,000. David Cameron’s salary as Prime Minister is £142,000. Going back to my notional £10 a month pledge, it would take over 1500 supporters donating that amount monthly to cover Ms Thomas’s annual salary.

It seems to me that the costs associated with running a charitable organisation in this way undermine the whole notion of charity, and that’s why I decline to support ones who use these methods. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that if the work done by Macmillan and others in the health field is truly vital (and I’ve no reason to suppose it isn’t), then we should be paying for it through general taxation and delivering it through the NHS. For the last few years, I’ve supported the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, knowing that virtually all the money (99%) I give goes to the very worthy projects they support, mainly fighting disease in Africa. That won’t help cancer patients in Britain of course, and I think it’s a sad reflection on the state of our country that with the second-largest economy in the EU, we are apparently dependent on people chipping in from their own pocket to support the medical care that suffering people require.