Opinion: Charitable Donations and the Changing Face of Fake News

There’s an in-fight I never imagined might be happening. One I perhaps should have, between social movements and the charities also supporting their areas of interest. Smaller charities have often been at the heels of their larger counterparts, struggling to keep up financially. However there is a distinction to be made between the two – organisations of social movements and charities – and in an age of misinformation, there’s a new breed of tactics that aren’t always intentional. They share more in common with the corporate and the political than you might expect. But what is its purpose, when the self-serving is really self-preservation and also for the greater good?

On a Wednesday afternoon, in a mindless passing over of my Facebook feed, something controversial lurks from an unlikely source. The local branch of a volunteer-activist movement, (in Cardiff, if you’re interested), shares an info-graphic with the heading “Are you helping beggars? Why Not?” There is merit in this post, of course. There is validty in its assertion over the human right to autonomy – especially over how we spend our money. It asks us to examine our prejudices surrounding homelessness, and it seemingly attempts to correct a culture formed around misinformation. It’s success, and maybe even intention, however, is questionable.

The image representing a figure of homelessness, holding a sign reading “I’m sat on a pavement and you’re not” is captioned with a warning to its reader.

Image shared by the local activist group’s Facebook Page on 4/12/18.

Please don’t give money to charities, they will only spend it on company cars, plush offices and advertising. Charities are businesses. The Big Issue is a business, with managers on 40K+. Average directors’ salary in the top 100 charities was £255,000 in 2017. Line of Charlie anyone? GIVE MONEY TO THE HOMELESS, THEY ARE JUST AS CAPABLE OF DECIDING WHAT TO SPEND IT ON AS YOU ARE” – Post shared by the group’s Facebook Page on 4/12/18.

This felt, however well intentioned, factually incorrect. It is important to note that the group that shared the post is not a registered charity. It does not masquerade as one. It is by definition, a movement. A social cause reliant on volunteers and voluntary donations of food items. The mission statement behind it being a rejection of the political or governmental organisations that are failing to protect society’s most vulnerable. The work is commendable. It is a consistent presence, carrying out their work once a week in the local area. It is also important to recognise that the post, while shared by the group, was not created or originally posted to Facebook by them.

The group operate as a form of franchise activism. A model where non-profit, independently ran causes all go by the same names in their respective localities. The franchise aspect being the model by which they support their cause. The cause itself is focused on the premise of providing vegan and vegetarian food, for free, cooked and served by a team of volunteers who commit their time once a week (in Cardiff, at least). There is, essentially, no money changing hands. People donate the items required, not the means by which to acquire them. 

But does a blanket approach to methods of supporting the vulnerable neglect to acknowledge the challenges we face as a society in the seemingly inescapable grips of austerity?

For context, totaljobs lists the current average charity salary (as of November 2018) as £23,000, with the average salary having fallen £4,449 – that’s 8% – from the previous year. Often charity workers make significantly less money than comparable positions in different sectors. It might be worth pointing out that one can speculate, among other causes, that the fall in average salary, might be in part a result of public trust falling following the OXFAM scandal. However this is, of course, hard to measure accurately – although charities themselves may be able to see a significant difference in levels of monetary donations.

The post’s assertion around the intentions of organisations such as the Big Issue are also misleading. The magazine makes no secret of its operations as a business. It is a social business, one that provides employment and a means of paying for the services it provides its users. Each “vendor” (as the Big Issue describes them) running their own form of self-employed “micro-business” placing emphasis on the autonomy these vendors have over their earnings.

Perhaps another pressing issue is the suggestion that charity workers should not be able to make a living from their employment. Charities provide crucial work in filling in the gap caused by the huge levels of disparity between funding that government provides society’s most vulnerable and the level of funding actually required. Through their work they also develop expertise in tackling the causes behind these social problems and how to most appropriately handle them.

Without a doubt we should be more aware of where we donate our money, and it is unquestionable that there are positives in seeking to directly help those we are in a position to. But one proposed solution does not diminish or negate the myriad of alternative solutions, or the years of experience and carefully researched expertise in their respective areas that charities have. Nor does it negate the charity worker’s liaison with and advising of political forces. The larger conundrum appears to be how do we tackle the spread of misinformation that can have such a devastating impact on the work done to benefit the lives of those most in need.

Writer’s Note: I do not believe the group to have any malicious intent, nor do I believe they have any obligation to censor their personally held opinions – as such I have chosen not to include their name in the article for fear of harming the good work they do.