Have charities thought enough about reputation issues?

Everyone working for a charity is acutely aware of the reputational issues the sector has faced over the last couple of years.

So I thought it would be worth mentioning an insight I’ve come across in a book I’m reading, Rethinking Reputational Risk by Anthony Fitzsimmons and Derek Atkins.

Fitzsimmons and Atkins make the case that while organisations often address the immediate cause of a reputational crisis, they can be less good at looking at the underlying causes.

They give the example of companies whose reputations have been damaged because of their use of child labour.

The simple approach for a company facing this kind of reputational crisis is to announce they will no longer use child labour and then to make sure this happens.

This approach will be, at least in a limited sense, effective. It is likely to minimise the reputational damage in the short term and reduce the risk of child labour causing further reputational damage in the future.

But this approach ignores the issue of why the company started using child labour in the first place.

Is it because it has a culture that makes it too focused on short term profit? Have its recruitment and promotion processes resulted in a set of leaders who don’t have the right ethical values?

These are fundamental questions that cut right to the heart of an organisation. But they’re questions that won’t be addressed if the company’s response to a reputational crisis is limited to issuing an order not to use child labour anymore.

And if the underlying reasons for the short-termist approach and unethical behaviour are left unaddressed, they are likely to come out in other ways.

This made me think about the reputational crisis the charity sector has faced over its approach to direct mail.

On one level, the sector has responded positively, accepting that some of its fundraising had become too aggressive and genuinely changing the way it raises money as a result.

But, building on Fitzsimmons and Atkins’s argument, I wonder if this is enough.

How much time has our sector really spent time thinking about what it is about our cultures that led to this kind of fundraising happening in the first place?

And if the answer is “not enough”, is there a risk that the sector’s response to the reputational damage has been to fix the symptoms rather than the cause?

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