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Trust in charities remains strong: just ask newspaper editors

By Martin Barrow

9 December 2015
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Tis the season to be merry.  You can tell by the Christmas charity appeals in our newspapers.  Towards the end of each year hard-nosed editors reach deep into their souls and nominate one or more charities who will benefit from readers’ generosity and will receive the sort of positive, upbeat editorial coverage that money simply cannot buy. Newsrooms come under orders to raise more money than they did in the previous year and to outdo the competition. At The Times they will be looking over their shoulders at how much is raised by The Telegraph, and so on. Newspapers make a significant contribution in terms of staff and money. Correspondents are deployed to Africa and the Middle East to find the stories that will tug at your heartstrings and encourage you to reach for your wallet. Yes, there is a commercial imperative at the heart of each charity appeal. But be in no doubt that newsrooms and journalists also do feel a sense of mission and purpose.

Wait a minute. Aren’t these the same charities that the media spent 11 months of the year beating up for abusing the trust of the Great British Public? Not the very same charities, I grant you. But charities which look and feel very much like them, with directors and trustees and head offices, raising money in the traditional way from the public and corporate sponsors, through mail shots, street collections and special events. These charities promise to find shelter for the homeless, support Forces veterans, help to find a cure for long-term conditions, repair nature.  This year The Times is supporting War Child, Contact the Elderly, Re-Cycle and British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The Telegraph supports Rethink Mental Illness, Care and Horatio’s Garden. The Guardian and Observer support six charities working with refugees in Britain and overseas. The FT is raising funds for Stop the Traffik, against human trafficking.

Maybe the Chosen Ones have been subject to robust and forensic examination by external auditors before getting the thumbs up from editorial boards, which sets them apart from charities which made headlines for all the wrong reasons this year. But I doubt it. In my experience as News Editor, charities are chosen, in the first instance, according to the cause they support and then for the way in which they propose to spend their money. An important consideration is a charity’s potential to generate engaging, human interest stories. Recent negative headlines weigh heavily on selection decisions. But newspapers are unlikely to invest time and money in evaluating corporate governance procedures, the role of trustees or efficiency and value for money.  A case in point: two years ago The Sun’s Christmas appeal supported Kids Company.

So, ironically, this highly-competitive process to select the beneficiaries of Christmas appeals is largely driven by trust and goodwill. Some may be baffled by this, given the media criticism levelled this year at the way charities are run, which has led to the imposition of new rules on fundraising and governance. But the reality is that newspapers have never really lost their belief in the power of charities to do great things.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that editors still believe that their readers are moved by stories about the work of charities and will respond by reaching for their credit cards. So do businesses: Christmas TV commercials brandish tie-ups with charities in the hope of enticing you into supermarkets and department stores. And that is the key message to remember once the normal business of newspapers resumes early in the New Year: charities are still good news.

Image credit: Fundraising UK