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Only out to save themselves? Charity regulation in historical perspective


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To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian charities, the recent spectacular demise of Kids’ Company will have thrown up some strikingly familiar tropes.

A charismatic, well-intentioned figurehead and founder, adept at using the media to build support, but then, virtually overnight, undone by that same media’s accusations of financial failings and suspicions of a bogus professional backstory is a fair summation of Camila Batmanghelidjh’s position. Yet these are characteristics that were so much a feature of an earlier type of charity entrepreneur that when one reporter at a parliamentary committee hearing described Batmanghelidjh’s famous headgear as standing as ‘high as a Victorian’s stovepipe hat’, it seemed spookily appropriate.

But if Kid’s Company has its obvious historical parallels, the wider fundraising travails of the charitable sector over the past few months have an equally long lineage.  In 2015, a series of allegations of poor practice by professional fundraising companies working on behalf of some of the UK’s leading charities emerged.

The very sad case of Britain’s oldest poppy seller, who before her death was bombarded with literature from charities – hundreds of requests for donations each month – highlighted a problem in the way that charities shared donor information. This in turn led to further press investigations, notably by the Daily Mail, which uncovered flouting of rules on donor data and unethical targeting of vulnerable people.

As a result, both the charity sector’s own regulatory bodies, and the state, in the form of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, reviewed regulation of fundraising and found that, while only a small proportion of charities engaged in questionable fundraising activities or suffered from poor governance, their presence meant the sector’s image as a whole risked damage. Both recommended a reconstituted self-regulatory structure, with Parliament concluding that ‘it would be a sad and inexcusable failure of charities to govern their own behaviour should statutory regulation became necessary’.

Ongoing research at the University of Manchester has uncovered that this quandary over who ought to regulate charity fundraising is nothing new. The emergence of a recognisably modern charity market in the late nineteenth century, when some of the biggest UK voluntary charities, including the Salvation Army and Barnardos, were founded, gave rise to very similar anxieties about fundraising.

There was no telemarketing to abuse in pursuit of donations, and no code of conduct to flout - the Charity Commission was still many decades from producing any guidance on fundraising. Nonetheless, mass mailings of lithographed begging letters attracted negative attention and prompted some to seek to rein in what they regarded as dubious practises which brought charities as a body into disrepute.

As in 2015, the press played a key investigatory and expurgatory role, with the society journal Truth going so far as to produce an annual ‘cautionary list’ of charities that ought not to be supported. Parliament also discussed the issue of fundraising regulation on several occasions, each time concluding, in terms that the Public Administration Committee would certainly baulk at, that foolish donors taken in by frauds did not deserve any form of statutory protection.

From the very beginning, therefore, it was the charities themselves which did most to police the margins of their sector, in the acute knowledge that a lack of public trust in one charity could seep into public perceptions of the sector as a whole. Thus, in London, C.S. Loch of the oft-maligned Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.) and in Liverpool, the Food and Betterment Association’s H. Lee Jones, devoted significant time to exposing what they saw as the frauds and bad practises of other charities.

The C.O.S.’s Enquiry Department kept files on hundreds of mainly London-based organisations, monitoring their fundraising operations and drawing attention, both privately, via subscriber lists, and publicly, via press advertisements, to those that failed to account for their work in the ways that the C.O.S. deemed fit. Meanwhile in Liverpool Lee Jones, in an almost comic turn of events, had to fend off, using the press and the police, a dubious Reverend named Lloyd Jones whose similar name and shady, ever-changing charities threatened to muddy Lee Jones’ own reputation.

To be sure, in doing this Loch and Lee Jones were knocking out rivals for precious donations and protecting their own bailiwicks. But they were also laying the foundations for the self-regulating charity marketplace, which, despite recent difficulties, seems set to continue well into the twenty-first century.

Readers Note:

A version of this article originally appeared on the History@Manchester blog. You can view the blog here: https://uomhistory.wordpress.com/

​The above research was carried out under ESRC grant RES-062-23-3166

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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