Spare some change for our new billboard?

Charities will lose public trust if they put political campaigning above helping the needy

By Jill Kirby

April 7, 2009 / Timesonline

A malnourished African child stands in front of you, stomach distended, skeletal limbs, those big soulful eyes staring out of the picture. The backdrop consists of parched ground, flies, broken-down buildings - maybe an empty bowl. Will you help? the caption asks. So you reach for your purse or write out a cheque. Times are tough, your job might be at risk, but you can still give a little to save a child's life.

Now think of a different picture - the child is overweight (too much junk food?), the clothes look like hand-me-downs, a worried adult stands in the background. Will you still make a donation? Save the Children hopes that you will.

Yesterday the UK branch of the world's largest independent organisation for children announced that it was distributing £150,000 to British families to help them to pay for “basic essentials”. At £100 or £200 a family, this looks more like a stunt than targeted support. But Colette Marshall, director of UK programmes for the charity, is fishing for a bigger catch, saying that “we are calling for the Government to invest at least £3 billion in the poorest families as a one-off cash injection in this Budget”. Citing US research, she claims that a fiscal stimulus in the shape of payments to the poorest families will have the welcome side-effect of reviving the UK economy. It's a point of view, certainly - but is it the proper remit of an international voluntary organisation whose credibility rests on its ability to fight poverty, disease and death in the Third World?

Save the Children may be the most prominent example of a big charity engaged in shameless political campaigning, but it's not the only one. Britain's biggest children's charity, Barnardo's, is also calling Gordon Brown to account. By polling nine and ten-year-olds it has found that 78 per cent of them think that “the Prime Minister should never break promises”. Funnily enough, it also wants him to announce £3billion to “halve child poverty” in the Budget.

The National Children's Bureau was founded more than 40 years ago to support children's emotional and development needs; its founding director, Mia Kellmer Pringle, spoke passionately about attachment theory and the importance of love and security for the very young. Today, the front page of the NCB website carries a plea to the Prime Minister to “keep your promise, Gordon” by ending child poverty. It's hardly what Kellmer Pringle had in mind.

Poverty is top of the agenda for children's charities. For wildlife lobbies, the environment is the only game in town. Two years ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds seemed about to oppose the proliferation of windfarms on Britain's coastline, when a spokesman expressed concern about white-tailed eagles being killed by wind turbines off Norway. The RSPB was founded in 1889 to prevent the “wanton destruction of birds”, so the sacrifice of a rare species to an expensive and intermittent source of energy looked a legitimate target.

Last month, however, the RSPB changed tack, announcing that the threat of global warming presented such a danger to the natural world that Britain should accelerate its windfarm building programme; not to do so, said its head of climate change policy, would be a “disaster.” Bird populations will have to take their chances with the turbines, because the RSPB has signed up to the climate change agenda.

If you sense that British charities have become ever more brazen in their emphasis on campaigning, you would be right. Why is Barnardo's spending money on children's opinion polls rather than children's homes? Because the Charity Commission says it can.

From 1999 on, guidance offered by the commission to charities about their scope for campaigning has been increasingly generous.

Its present guidelines, published last year, explicitly encourage charities to speak out, and express concern that the voluntary sector may have been held back from campaigning through fear of losing charitable status. Because they “command high levels of public trust and confidence”, charities are “uniquely placed” to campaign.

Perhaps the commission should ask itself if the high levels of trust enjoyed by charities can be maintained in the face of increasing political activism. With confidence in politicians sinking by the hour, surely it is time for the voluntary sector to stand aside from campaigning and focus on helping the needy?

The NSPCC's new chief executive, Andrew Flanagan, acknowledged yesterday that its £250 million Full Stop campaign has not met expectations of ending child cruelty, and declared that its emphasis in recession would be on helping vulnerable children. Mr Flanagan is an experienced media hand, so this may be just another piece of spin.

But if it really represents a change in direction, I for one will be more willing to put my hand in my purse. I don't want to pay for another billboard or opinion poll. But to fund a place of safety for a child being beaten or abused - that's a cause worth supporting any day.

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Cash for Campaigning

While reading the above article, all I could see in my mind is "adoption lobby-groups"  back here in the good ol' US of A, petitioning for political interest and financial support for services that may or may not be considering a child's best interests, well-being, OR safety.

I think there's a huge difference between charitable "family services" and big private business opportunities... for instance, in America we have grass-root programs like The Nurse-Family Partnership Program assisting families-in-need, but we also have more powerful groups like the CCAI, the NCFA , and of course the mother of all adoption think-tank services,  The Evan B Donaldson Adoption Institute assisting their own "special groups". 

Meanwhile, when it comes to child safety and child placement how is the state foster-care system doin' these days? 

Given the rising interest and popularity in adoption, can people honestly say  all charitable family services are treated the same by the (American) Government?

So the question is -- does the UK really want to follow in America's foot-steps when it comes to family services and future child placement, or do they really want to make the sort of changes that benefit all children and families?

 

Means, motive and opportunity

When I read the above article it emphasized to me the apparent commercialim of large charitable organizations. In a sence organizations such as Save the Children are not all that different from Walmart or McDonalds in their ambition to expand and divesify and in many ways they compete for every charitable Dollar, Pound or Euro available.

The problem I see with many charities is that their activities are to a degree aimed at self-sustenance, which is often at conflct with the goals set. Suppose through a miracle all children in this world would be relieved from poverty, where would that leave Terre des Hommes, Save the Children, Unicef or Oxfam. In that sense the sustainance of these organizations is closely related to the suffering of other people.

When looking at people involved with these large charitable organizations, the affiliation with media companies is striking. On the board of Save the Children we find a news anchor and a correspondent of ABC news, a correspondent of NBC, and the former CEO of Warner Bros.

Succeess of news media and that of charities go hand and hand. Television programs related to catastrophes around the world and the plight of orphans are usually highly watched, while at the same time they generate huge amounts of charitable donations. So in many ways news media and charities benefit of close collaboration.

The risk with such close affiliation is of course that no one in the main stream media is paying any attention to the efficiency and effectiveness of charitable activities. Not to speak of the motives behind many charitable activities.

So the question remains why many of these charitable organizations exist. Is it because of the many problems in the world? Is it because donating and working for these organizations looks good? Is it to further personal or business agendas of those involved?

Of course there is no simple answer to that, but what we can see is that over time some of the larger charitable organizations have become a huge source of power and influence. Save the Children USA alone has net assetts of more than $100 million and it has a world wide network of contacts that can influence policies.

If there were a guarantee all that power and influence would indeed be used in the best interest of children or any other charitable cause, I wouldn't be writing this comment.

So far, I've only talked about the large, multi-scope charitable organizations. Apart from those there are organizations that call themselves charities, but that are in fact businesses or parties that further a particular religious agenda. In that respect it's interesting to see that an organization as NCFA can call itself a charity, due to its 501(c)3 status, but in effect is a promotional organization for several adoption agencies seeking particular legislation to ease their business opportunities. All these agencies themselves are again so-called charities, claiming to work in the best interest of children, while in reality those agencies are primarily focused on satisfying their clientele. Since selling of children is not allowed as a commercial activity, it has to be done under the cloak of charitable work.

Much the same can be said about foster care organizations. In that case there is not so much a pull from people wanting to foster, but more so a governmental pot of gold that drives these businesses. The more contracts, the more income for those organizations and with that comes political influence. As a result the foster care system ends up working in the interest of the foster care organizations instead of the interest of the children, the system was meant for in the first place.

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