Giving, celebrities and governance

Dr Diana Leat, Visiting Academic at ACPNS

Dr Diana Leat, Visiting Academic at ACPNS

By Dr Diana Leat, Visiting Academic at ACPNS

One of the biggest potential aids to encouraging giving is good communications – and, in particular, widespread media coverage. But not all media coverage is equal. In the current competition for party nominations in the US Presidential elections, it has been estimated that Donald Trump has received over $1 billion of free media coverage simply because what he says and how he says it makes headlines. For Trump whether the coverage is ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable’ may not matter as much as the very fact of being in the headlines every day. For charities being in the headlines is more complicated – content is, arguably, way more important than coverage.

Many charities may wish to hit the headlines more often – and that is presumably one reason why charities are generally more than happy to be associated with celebrities. When celebrity endorsement of a particular organisation or a cause goes smoothly it is assumed to be of considerable value even though it is debatable how much we really know about the effects of celebrity association on giving. Am I more likely to give to X because my favourite boy band is associated with X? Or is it simply because X gets more media mentions because of its association with the band?

But as charities in the UK, and elsewhere, have recently learned celebrity association has a potentially less attractive aspect. For example, how many charities would now wish to be associated with Jimmy Saville or Rolf Harris? Such cases are the exception rather than the rule but the underlying point is that celebrity association goes hand in hand with additional positive publicity – and additional media scrutiny which may turn into negative publicity. A charity that has less than perfect accounts is likely to fly beneath the radar – but if it is closely associated with a celebrity it will more than likely land on the front page.

There is a more fundamental issue to do with the relationship between giving, celebrities and charities: celebrities (in a broad sense) on the board. Several of the recent charity ‘scandals’ in the UK have been caused in large part by a failure of governance; board members who were too busy or too important to keep their eye on the ball, or who never really understood the complexity of the task in the first place. Being a volunteer board member may not be as immediately satisfying as serving the meals or handing out the blankets but is at least as important; and it requires in-depth knowledge, attention to detail and both the insight and the courage to ask the tough, awkward questions. So instead of looking to the stars for board members, maybe it’s time to recognise those board members who successfully steer charities in this turbulent environment as the stars they really are.

Professor Diana Leat has held a number of research and teaching posts at a variety of institutions world-wide including LSE, UCLA, Demos, Cass Business School, Deakin, Carnegie Trust, ACPNS at QUT and The Rockefeller Archive Center, New York. She is widely published with over 120 articles and books on the non-profit sector and social policy, specialising in philanthropic foundations. Her most recent publication – The Inventive Foundation – is a pan-European study of foundations generating wholly new ventures.

Diana has consulted to a large number of nonprofits in the United Kingdom and internationally, reviewing their policies. Short-term research consultancies for various organisations include charities, trusts, government departments, universities and commercial companies and have dealt with various topics, with a key theme of grant giving policies and practices. Other themes have been the voluntary sector and social policy, charities and broadcasting, voluntary organisation funding and management, and the effects of contracting.

Diana has acted as consultant to various grantmaking organisations including The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, Comic Relief/Charity Projects, as well as the Association of Charitable Foundations, the Sidney Myer Fund, and the Myer Foundation in Australia, and WINGS-CF. She is a member of the NCVO Advisory Council and has recently joined the board of the Blagrave Trust.

“The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of QUT or ACPNS”.

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