Editor-At-Large: The giving sector is a mess – and that's being charitable

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:14

David Cameron wants us to give more to charity – an admirable goal most of us would endorse. Last week he talked of "nudging" the public into giving more by pressing a donation key at cash machines, or by "rounding up" the total when we pay a bill. Critics say that Dave's Big Society is doomed, but I'm not so cynical.

Most of us already participate in our own way – through village halls, and community groups – but we don't want to be bossed about by government. We secretly suspect that Dave's Big Plan will mean expensive project reviews and implementation documents written in Whitehall bollocks ordinary people can't understand.

If Dave wants to do something radical, he should appoint a management consultant to overhaul the entire charitable sector. Treat it like a business, ruthlessly streamline it and ensure that it gives donors value for money. He's slashed the budget of the Charity Commission by 30 per cent – maybe he should cull the quango all together and replace it with a tougher control system.

Charity is so trendy these days that joining a fund-raising network has replaced going to the gym. Every day I get an invitation to yet another cocktail party or dinner, and the list of committee members on the expensive bit of card is usually longer than the running order for the event itself. The social pages of magazines are full of pictures of the well-heeled sipping champers as they conspicuously support a cause.

People who want to burnish their reputation can't wait to set up a foundation or a trust to help kids with cancer or women in childbirth. Take Gordon and Sarah Brown – the former PR woman now describes her job as "working for charitable causes"; Cherie Booth has set up a foundation, just like her husband; pop stars from Bono to Sting all have their own charities; and so have the royals, most notably Princes Charles and Harry.

Of course, the vast majority of charities are set up and run by hard-working people who aren't famous and who toil for many hours for nothing, out of the public eye and un-remarked upon in the gossip columns.

But what interests me in particular is the growth of "vanity" projects, which can result in dozens of organisations doing the same work. It is total inefficiency – the majority of charities do not share staff or premises, and indulge in unnecessary competition for our cash.

Charities are monitored by the Charity Commission, which insists on legal compliance, and "encourages effectiveness". Shouldn't they interfere more? They can inspect accounts, but how do they guarantee value for money? Prince Harry's charity for African orphans, Sentabale, was criticised in 2008 for only allocating £84,000 to projects in Lesotho after raising £1.5m. Last year, its staff costs were £500,000, with one executive on £100,000. Out of funds of £1.8m, only £1.1m was used for charitable work. Is this acceptable?

The wife of our former ambassador to Washington, Lady Meyer, has been criticised over the amount paid out in salaries by her charity Pact – Parents and Abducted Children Together. Last year, Pact received £59,056 in donations and £38,000 in grants, but paid out almost £50,000 in salaries, to just two staff members, one of whom was Lady Meyer. The problems faced by parents who have children abducted are considerable, but does a charity this small really need two highly paid executives?

Innocent, which makes fruit smoothies, print a pledge on their bottles that 10 per cent of profits will go to charity. Last week, it emerged that its foundation had not received any funds since 2008, and that £520,000 earmarked for the charity in 2007 was still sitting in the Innocent bank account.

A close look at the accounts of Bono's charity One Foundation reveals that in 2008 it raised £9.5m and gave just £118,000 to worthy causes – that's 1.2 per cent of turnover. Running costs came to an astonishing £5.1m. I'm sure Lord Sugar would not think this was a great way to run a business, but hey, "it's charidee".

Instead of beseeching hard-pressed voters – facing increased living costs and possible redundancy – to cough up, Mr Cameron should hand control of charities to our Business Secretary and insist the industry operates more efficiently.

Don't let the burgers grind you down, Jamie

Jamie Oliver is a brilliant campaigner whose series about school dinners and 30-minute meals triumphed in this country. Sadly, on the other side of the Atlantic his charm has failed to persuade enough Yanks to watch his Food Revolution show, which has just been dropped halfway through the second series.

Jamie fought valiantly to try and re-educate US children about the dangers of obesity, even dressing up as a root vegetable, but his core message, that a diet of fast food shortens your life, went down like a cup of cold sick. The first series, set in West Virginia, won an Emmy for best reality show, but when production started on series two in California, our star culinary export was not allowed to film in schools.

Undeterred, the cheeky chappy has announced a new series for Channel 4, Jamie's Great Britain – six hour-long shows showcasing traditional grub. Eccles cakes, pork pies, fish and chips, steak and kidney pie and jam roly poly, hardly constitute healthy eating – maybe Jamie's given up fighting the flab.

Nimby objection is dead meat

Sam Cam's dad Sir Reginald Sheffield owns Sutton Park, a Grade I listed 18th-century mansion in North Yorkshire. It is open to the public and popular as a wedding venue.

Sir Reg has got in a frightful lather over plans to build an abattoir half a mile away, claiming "the noise and smells" would damage local tourism. Total baloney. Planners have given it the go-ahead, and they're right. There's already an abattoir in the Yorkshire Dales, McIntyre Meats, at Bainbridge. I filmed there, and can confirm that modern abattoirs are pong-free and traffic is not a nuisance. Importantly, they employ local people and provide a vital service for farmers.

Sir Reg is being a snob – would he rather distressed animals were driven miles to be slaughtered?

Desert rally for Saudi women

On June 17, Saudi Arabia will see its first mass-drive protest, after a woman oil executive was jailed for posting a video online showing her behind the wheel of a car. Hard-line clerics claim that it is illegal, something an increasing number of people are refusing to tolerate. Now, 1,500 have signed a petition asking for King Abdullah to intervene.

At the moment, women have to pay someone to ferry them about, which means poorer woman are isolated. The real reason the authorities don't want women to drive is that they don't want them to have the freedom to work where they like and compete with men. But young people want political reform. This protest can only grow – but will King Abdullah's powerful pals Prince Andrew or Mr Cameron be saying anything?

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments