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Charities need money. But they also need principles

Every NGO worker knows that it is a privilege to work in the sector

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Bonus bonanzas, aggressive targets, Government cash and six-figure salaries. The high-flying life of a British banker? No. This is the UK charity sector in today’s new world.

Tonight, BBC’s Panorama lifts the lid on how some big British charities make money. Focusing on Comic Relief, Amnesty and Save the Children, viewers may be surprised to learn how far they will go to hit the bottom line.

I should be clear from the start: I was Head of News at Save the Children for two years. It’s a charity I still care for, that does excellent work, saving and building lives in the world’s toughest places. But I believe there is a growing problem at the heart of some NGOs that, if not confronted now, will end up undermining the sector – perhaps fatally.

NGOs are – or ought to be – forged and founded in the furnace of unmet human need, to care for the vulnerable and speak up for the voiceless. To do this they need money – money saves lives. But some NGOs, in their desire to boost income, have begun to contradict their founding principles.

When I was at Save from 2007 to 2009, running the press team, there was pressure to focus on child poverty in the UK. So when British Gas put their prices up, our policy colleagues asked us to send out a press release condemning them, on the premise that poor families would be forced to make choices between heating their homes or feeding their children.

I wrote the release, and got it approved. But it was spiked because, I was told, it would upset British Gas, who were Save donors.

There are other examples. Recently, a Save staffer reported that a colleague had written a blog on abuse of children in the tea industry – but it was spiked for fear it would upset Liptons, another corporate partner.

The directors of Save are all on salaries far in excess of £100,000 – often including bonuses. Yes, you should be paid a decent salary for what is a high pressure job. But every NGO worker knows it is a privilege to work in the sector, to go home at night and to feel good about the contribution you have made. Bonuses are not right. It’s as simple as that.

Companies want only one thing – good PR. And that’s why they come to Save and other charities. Corporations are stuffing the mouths of some NGOs with gold, and it is wrong.

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