The importance and ethics of fund raising
The British Heart Foundation gets no financial support from government. Every penny it raises is from donations, from the public and from corporates.
This puts the BHF in a very different position from many others in the sector, who have a dependency on government contracts, grants or both.
At a time when questions are being raised about the extent to which the reliance on public money compromises the independence of some organisations, the BHF can proudly assert its independence.
It has been around for 55 years now. At the core of its mission is research: research that has made a massive contribution to both our understanding and treatment of cardio vascular disease: from funding the great Frank Pantridge’s pioneering work in Northern Ireland in developing the defibrillator, to current research at Queens which hopefully will lead to a breakthrough in the prevention or treatment of Heart Failure.
It also provides other services with regards to both prevention of heart disease and support to those who have it.
This mass of independently gathered research puts the organisation in an ideal place to lobby government. It does so not from a perspective of self-interest, to preserve revenue streams or to urge investment in services it provides, for example, but to ensure progress in combatting what remains a major health threat.
Jayne Murray said: “We see ourselves as a critical friend to government. We like to sit down with them, share our research and learnings and lobby for policies that will make a difference. Of course we can agree to disagree but if something is important, we of course, reserve the right to go public and address the matter in a more populist manner."
BHF’s independence give it an undoubted credibility both with the public and health authorities and it has a long track record of innovation and success.
Currently it is funding an important piece of research at Queen’s University into heart failure. These days around 70% of people who suffer attacks survive them. This is a great testament to progress but it is far from the end of the story. Heart attacks often cause serious damage to the heart, and this can lead to heart failure, and ultimately death. The Queen’s research project is one of a series commissioned to try to fund a cure for heart failure. Currently the BHF has more than £3 million invested in research at Queens.
And with obesity and diabetes both key risk factors for heart disease, and both steeply on the rise we can expect far more work in this field in the decades to come. There may have been victories along the way but the war on heart conditions is very far from won. This is important work. It may be independent of government, but it is utterly reliant on the trust and confidence of donors.
So how is funding holding up, and how is the BHF responding to recent negative stories about the fund raising techniques used by some others in the sector?
Jayne Murray joined the organisation just as recession hit in 2011, memories of that experience are still vivid for her. In a given year the organisation gets between 35 and 40% of its revenue from legacies. The collapse in the housing market had an immediate impact on this revenue stream, and corporate and public donations were also impacted. There was belt tightening and less monies to invest in research.
Interestingly one area grew revenue: the organisation’s charity shops which saw rises in income as peoples’ shopping habits changed in response to tough times.
Now it is back to business as usual, at least so far as England and Wales is concerned: property prices have recovered and risen again, and revenues are strong enough for the BHF to pledge £100 million per annum to research projects. In Northern Ireland house prices have yet to recover but the organisation still managed to raise £1.9 million here last year.
The depressed housing market has not impacted services and investment here. So although the monies raised from NI came to £1.9 million, the monies spent amounted to £2.4 million.
This is because the BHF spends money where it is most needed and NI has high levels of heart disease.
Jayne is very much aware of the threat that unethical fundraising poses, not just to themselves but to the sector as a whole: “It’s a threat,” she says. “And we believe it is important when people raise money for us that they know exactly where it is going and the impact it is having. That level of transparency is vital.”
“Equally we have to be open and honest but also respectful. So when people donate we ask them how they want to be contacted so it’s very clear to them that we will follow their wishes. We appreciate that some people want to give one off donations whilst others want to do something more often. “
One of the issues which has prompted most controversy is the practice that some charities have of selling on contact lists of donors to other organisations, no necessarily other charities.
Jayne believes that is unethical: “We do not sell on our lists. And no-one should do that. I’ve never understood the logic to it, but we don’t do it and I’m glad we don’t.”
Similarly chuggers are not deployed in Northern Ireland: “I don’t like being stopped in the street,” she says, “and I don’t see why anyone else should be.”
BHF does use a call centre and seeks donations door-to-door but she stressed that all those involved are subjected to rigorous training to ensure they comply with the highest ethical standards.
“We owe it to people with heart disease and those at risk of developing it to raise money to find cures but this must be done in a respectful and ethical manner. We use mystery shoppers to monitor third parties and if anyone has a less than positive experience we want to know about it because they are representing the charity.”
She says that the issue of ethical funding raising is vital for the entire sector: “We need to be a force for good and recognised as such and negative issues need to be addressed.”
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