Published: 15 May 2013

The comms insider – On wastage

In last month’s blog I talked about the issue of poor governance in the charity sector. More specifically, I proposed that to be truly effective in achieving their objectives, charities must ensure their management team structure is lean, unlike so many of the bloated corporate-minded machines passing themselves off as charities today.

In many cases it’s simply the result of the challenge of old-meets-new; new people are brought on board to change the direction of the charity while the old ones who’ve been pulling the strings for years and are deeply entrenched in the organisation’s ethos dig their heels in and refuse to step aside. Thus two sets of egos collide, the outcome of which can never be good for the hundreds if not thousands dependent on the funds raised by the charity.

But it’s not egos I want to discuss today; it’s wastage. Or, to put a finer point on it, the shocking misdirection of funds that I’ve personally witnessed since joining the third sector. I promised to tell you a story to demonstrate this point, and so I will. If you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

The Front Line

The day of my first official visit to the hallowed place they called (well, I called) the Front Line dawned bright and clear. Such opportunities being somewhat of a rarity, I was brimming over with enthusiasm: after all, what kind of charity communications professional would I be if I didn't have an interest in meeting those whom my charity helped?

So there I was, about to meet a group of beneficiaries (for want of a better word, given that further identification of the group in question might provide too much of a clue about the type of work my charity did) and the team that worked directly with them. There had been ripples of discontent in recent weeks throughout the organisation, after austerity measures such as cutting travel costs had been mooted. But in reality I’d seen no hard evidence of anybody heeding such measures, or at least not in the communications arena, where hotel rooms and train tickets were still being cancelled at the eleventh hour with alarming and flippant regularity.

As we waited for the beneficiaries to arrive, I chatted to one of the team members who worked closely with them. Interested to know about the main challenges they faced as a team, I asked the question, expecting that perhaps she would detail the sensitivities of working with vulnerable groups. But no: the main challenge, in her eyes, was the lack of funds reaching the Front Line to allow them to do their jobs. It wasn’t just the services that were underfunded, she told me. Her team had recently been told that all non-essential travel must be cut with immediate effect – including travel to visit the very beneficiaries the charity was meant to be helping. I was gobsmacked.

Budget cuts

I didn’t say it at the time, but the gaping discrepancy between this directive and the woolly austerity measures imparted to the communications team – which were largely being ignored, particularly by senior management who one could only assume were ‘above the law’ where such matters were concerned – was beyond striking. How could we say we were doing all we could to help vulnerable groups when we were cutting the budgets of those people within the organisation whose job it was to work directly with them? Not even cutting their budgets, but slashing them; refusing to sanction what could legitimately be classified as essential travel costs, as the big wigs on the senior management team continued to cancel train tickets and hotel rooms on a whim and without a second thought. And it wasn’t just that part of the Front Line that was suffering. As time went on I came to see that these pockets of deprivation existed across the charity.

The hypocrisy of this situation was further compounded when, year after year, vast pots of unspent money would suddenly become available two weeks prior to year end, with the express instruction that communications must make use of them or they would be wasted. Cue reams of unnecessary and extortionately expensive last-minute ad campaigns, which were entirely non-strategic and therefore wholly ineffective. My communications colleagues and I would marvel at the ill-judged decisions that were made around this time of panic-spending.

Why can’t senior management teams see that while it is vital to invest in communications activities to build an organisation’s profile and raise funds to support its objectives, to do so at the expense of those parts of the organisation which most need funding is to strike at the very heart of charity itself? To use an analogy (you may have guessed by now I’m fond of them), if the soldiers on your Front Line are starving, no amount of rhetoric in the world is going to win the war.

Anonymous, Mystery UK charity

The comms insider is an anonymous comms professional working at a UK charity. S/he wishes to remain incognito so as to be able to write frankly about his/her experiences and opinions.