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Collaboration in the face of disaster: my week at the DEC

Another accusation repeatedly hurled at the charity sector is there’s too much of it. It’s true that there are over 163,000 registered charities in the UK alone. But personally, whilst of course this needs to be regulated, I think in general, the more the merrier. Charities are usually set up in reaction to a need, and the majority in Britain focus on very specific causes or localised issues. 80% have less than ten staff members.

What I do object to is any overly competitive behaviour among charities. Those with similar missions should do their best to work together, complimenting each other’s efforts rather than working like rival businesses. Creating impact and aiding beneficiaries should always be the primary focus before any navel-gazing organisational interests. Competitive behaviour only goes towards reinforcing negative impressions among the public of the industry as over-professionalised and target hungry.


I was stopped by a chugger recently – an attractive one, obviously – they always manage to divert me – and I made to walk away, telling him I already support the charity he represented through payroll giving. This is much more tax effective for me, as I give before I’m taxed on my salary and can afford to give the charity more.

Not only did he overlook this fact and continue to push what he was selling, but he tried to argue that payroll giving is some kind of conspiracy. As I currently work for the market leader in running payroll giving schemes, we had a pretty fantastic argument about this. We had great rapport I think, but I came away pretty disappointed with his far from charitable tactics. Well, those of the charity. We can’t blame him.

Some of the more unpopular methods these often outsourced private fundraising groups are using to hound potential new donors – aggressive chugging, haranguing phone calls, invasive door knocking – are undoubtedly contributing to the image of charities as competitive businesses, not a unified sector fighting together to improve society.

Take the case of Olive Cooke recently, the pensioner who committed suicide after having received numerous begging letters from charities. Although her death was confirmed to be completely unrelated to the charity letters, certain newspapers were quick to point an accusatory finger at the charity world.

For all of these reasons, it was a privilege to be invited to the offices of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) last month to support the Nepal Earthquake Appeal and witness a true feat of charitable collaboration in action. You can see me here in the background among the bustle:

For such a high profile and active organisation, the DEC itself has a surprisingly small team – just three in communications whilst I was there. But during a disaster appeal its ranks swell each day with a dozen or so people seconded in from member agencies to build capacity in media and social. One day I had a social media manager from the British Red Cross sitting beside me, the next a press officer from Oxfam.

The processes have been finely tuned to accommodate for this influx so the organisation can spring seamlessly into action when a new appeal launches. And this is just the external communications operation, to say nothing of the thirteen member agencies out there on the ground working together to aid the thousands of victims of disaster.

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Sitting among the buzz and activity of the DEC ‘war room’ – a lightless basement with one large laptop-strewn table – awed by the seamless momentum of the operation, it occurred to me that more collaboration on this scale may be one of the ways charities could redeem themselves in the eyes of the public.

One of the areas for which Global Giving partners can be rewarded is ‘listening’. Throughout our training there has been a particular emphasis on the importance of this behaviour and how charities, especially small ones, should take every opportunity to network, learn from each other and where possible work together.

It’s also the fundamental idea behind the Giving Tuesday movement, which I helped launch in the UK last year.

If there were more high-profile examples of effective co-working and less aggressive street fundraisers duelling for space on our pavements, the newspapers may stop picking on the charity sector. Who knows.


  1. Pingback: The cake sale: a beginner’s guide to fundraising | gortoner

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