OPINION: What do we need to learn from the Presidents Club debacle?

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The can of worms opened at the annual Presidents Club dinner might be bigger than we think. Ian MacQuillin explores some of the questions raised.


Ever heard Eddie Izzard talking about mass murder and how we just aren’t equipped to deal with it on a genocidal scale – that when the death toll reaches a certain level we kind of lose any empathetic understanding of it because it’s just too big to contemplate? (Warning: NSFW!).That’s kind of how I felt listening to and reading about the Presidents Charitable Trust (known as the Presidents Club – sic: no apostrophe) fundraising dinner as reported in the Financial Times this week.

Adopting an Izzardesque perspective: a couple of drunken yobs leering at a waitress – awful boorish behaviour; a rich man making a ‘job offer’ to a young woman – abuse of power; ingrained, institutionalised sexist attitudes and behaviour on such a brazen scale over three decades without getting caught – well, that must have taken some organising. I felt as if I were beyond outrage; surely this couldn’t be happening.

The general feeling of disgust has been well articulated on Twitter, on Fundraising Chatand the Critical Fundraising Forum on Facebook, and in may other places – see for example, this guest blog in The Guardian by the IoF’s Dan Fluskey. But when the immediate outrage abates, we will be left with some serious question about this whole episode that will require some serious conversations:

  • Why did it happen, and how do we stop it happening in the future?
  • How should charities respond?
  • Should charities have known that this was happening?
  • Is this an extreme one-off or an example of endemic attitudes and behaviour?

Why did this happen? How do we stop it happening again?

Dare I say that what happened with the Presidents Club is an indicator of an occupation that is not fully professionalised. I would hope that the people who organised this event are not members of the IoF. I doubt they are. I bet they’ve never seen the Code of Fundraising Practice, let alone read it.

Professionals would not stage an event like this.

Yet already, all charity fundraising is being seen as an homogenous lump. Rosemary Bennett, education editor at TheTimes, tweeted:

‘It is NO excuse to say “but it raises lots of money for charity”. Charities need to make clear there are limits to fundraising.’

For her, this is just another example of bad fundraising practice. She doesn’t differentiate between those inside the fundraising ‘profession’ (such that it is) and those outside it who also raise money for charity. To her, it is all the same thing and here’s yet another example of unethical fundraising practice from all those engaged in fundraising.

The Institute of Fundraising’s statement on this episode also talks about the fundraising conducted by the Presidents Club as if it were part of mainstream fundraising: by calling it out as the bad practice, it also brings it into the mainstream of the ‘profession’, when it clearly was not.

One of the things traditionally used to demarcate professions from non-professions is whether the profession can prevent people from practising – i.e. those who are not qualified to practise – through some kind of licensing process or similar. I’m not saying fundraisers should or need to be licensed (though others have, for individuals and for agencies). But the Presidents Club dinner is an example of what happens when any Tom, Dick or Harry can organise high profile fundraising events with little knowledge of and zero accountability to professional/ethical standards.

I keep calling for increased professionalisation of fundraising – by which I mean fundraising needs to take on more of the trappings of a profession such as law. I can see no sound argument against this, yet I keep meeting stiff resistance from fundraisers opposed to such an idea, who prefer that fundraising retain some kind of Corinthian spirit.

Yet this event was staged by people who were not and never likely to be members of the fundraising profession, so how could ‘professionalising’ stop this happening again?

“If you insist on preserving the Corinthian character of fundraising, the possibility of something like the ethos and practices of the Presidents Club are what you have to accept as a corollary cost.”

We need to change the culture that views fundraising and fundraisers as an add-on function that you don’t need specialists to do. Volunteers need to understand there are best practice and ethical standards they need to adhere to. They need to understand that paid, professional fundraisers already have this knowledge, and that they do not. They need to seek out the advice of professional fundraisers, trust that advice, and then act on it. Volunteers must see the need to – and then want to – aspire to the standards that professionals already reach.

These all seem more likely to achieve if fundraising is professionalised – i.e. that fundraisers acquire a body of knowledge that is trusted by those that don’t have this knowledge and that they earn professional respect for having it (rather than being considered a ‘necessary evil’).

Whether or not being more professionalised would prevent future Presidents Clubs entirely is a moot point up for debate. But it certainly isn’t going to make them any easier to get away with.

Keeping fundraising ‘amateur’ or ‘Corinthian’ by giving anyone a chance to become a fundraiser without having learned how to do it might have some advantages (if there are, I personally think they are far outweighed by the benefits of having a fully professionalised fundraising sector).

But if you insist on preserving the Corinthian character of fundraising, the possibility of something like the ethos and practices of the Presidents Club are what you have to accept as a corollary cost.

How ought charities respond?

How charities respond to this situation presents some interesting dilemmas in its own right. Rejecting new donations and severing their associations with the Presidents Club seems the most relevant, immediate thing to do.

From a consequentialist perspective, this is the right thing to do because it protects charities’ reputations – one of the reasons, along undue influence on trustees and illegal provenance of funds, that Charity Commission guidance provides for rejecting donations (see also the IoF’s guidance on accepting/refusing donations and this helpful article from Frances Barnwell of Farrer and Co).

From a deontological perspective, it also seems the right thing to do because it is wrong – plain and simple – to have an ongoing association with an organisation that exhibits such appalling behaviour and attitudes. It sends a strong signal on behalf of those charities and the voluntary sector generally that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated, much less implicitly endorsed.

Some charities have gone further and just said that they would not just reject any future donations offered but also return donations already made. In some cases this will amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds over a few years (though they require the Charity Commission’s permission to do this). What is the ethical justification for doing this?

The overriding consequentialist reason is to maintain and protect public trust. Maybe that would be achieved by cutting all current and future connections. If so, then there is no need to extend that action into the past. Returning historic donations like this is problematic, since those donations have already been spent and their return will leave a gaping hole in the current year’s budget. This hole can only be filled by drawing down from reserves, doing more fundraising, or cutting something.

With any decision to refuse or return a donation, a relevant factor is always the ultimate impact on beneficiaries since, ultimately, it is always beneficiaries who have to shoulder the burden of a shortfall in fundraised income – and there has been some traffic on relevant charities’ social media to this effect, that it’s the beneficiaries who will suffer by returning donations, while an editorial in The Sun said that Great Ormond Street Hospital had “lost its mind” by returning the donations.

If the charity can convincingly argue that it needs to return historic donations to protect its reputation (consequentialism), all well and good.

However, if a retrospective decision is made on deontological grounds only, it’s fair to ask why the charity is doing this? The consequences of a deontological act are not relevant: you perform an action because it conforms to a pre-existing moral norm. But it’s my view is that charities must always carefully consider the impact on beneficiaries in any ethical dilemma in which one horn is to reject or return a donation, and so this consideration must always temper any temptation to make decisions on deontological grounds alone.

One outcome to such a Rights Balancing approach would be to:

Reject future donations/server ties, but argue that past donations have already been spent and can’t be returned without a level of undue harm to beneficiaries.

I think many people would accept such an argument if it were cogently articulated.

And yet…

Even though the revelation of sexist behaviour only applies to this year’s event, charities might reasonable infer that similar behaviour would have occurred in previous years and so the historic association is unethical and justified: it must return money it has already spent, even though there is potential harm to beneficiaries (though is there a statute of limitations on this, or ought a charity return every penny its received from the Presidents Club, even if this goes back 20 years or more?). In such a case, would the standard of evidence for this inference actually justify returning donations and the potential harm to beneficiaries?

It’s also possible a charity might want to return previous because not just because it infers past bad behaviour happened, but because the charity actually knows bad behaviour occurred at previous events, and, hand on heart, it knows that it should never have accepted the donations in the first place.

Should charities have known about this?

This raises many questions about due diligence and checking the provenance of donations. I’m not for a moment suggesting that charities did know what was going on and accepted the donations anyway. But as we know only too well from the Fundraising Crisis, fundraisers are under enormous pressure to hit their short-term targets and supervision by management or trustees is often absent or half-hearted (until something goes wrong), meaning ethical corners are often there to be cut.

Part of the Independent’s City diary item on the President’s Club dinner in 2010. Nothing about “tucking into the girls” found its way up the chain to any recipient charities, it would seem.

I actually find it hard to think that no-one at any charity harboured anysuspicions about the Presidents Club dinner – the testosterone-filled bravado was featured in 2010 in ‘Slackberry’, the City diary column of The Independent (taglined “The good, the bad and the ugly of The Square Mile”), written from the perspective of a male guest, and no sector feathers ruffled at all (shades of Olive Cooke’s photo in the Bristol Post surrounded by DM that appeared six months before she took her own life).

Even though it might not have warranted a full ethical enquiry, surely there were enough warning signs for someone to take a closer look. That this was a ‘men only’ event must have been a red flag to at least someone.

The fact that no-one at any recipient charity appears to have looked more closely at the event is a warning sign for us to ask why they did not, and if someone did red-flag it, why weren’t they listened to?

Top of the list of the usual suspects that might lead blind eyes being turned to anything dubious is the unrelenting pressure to hit short-term targets. One of the causes of this is that fundraisers’ specialist knowledge – in this context, the need to invest in longer-term donorcentric relationship fundraising – is derogated by the rest of the organisation. This in turn is fuelled by fundraising not being seen as, nor sometimes acting like, a profession. None of which absolves fundraisers – individually or collectively – of their responsibility to make ethical choices. It’s just much easier to do this if you have the full weight of a fully-fledged profession standing behind you.

Is this an outlier or endemic?

Is what happened at the Presidents Club a massive outlier – in which case we can take lessons from it but don’t necessarily need to make huge knee-jerk changes to sector policy? Or is it an example – albeit an extreme one – of something more ingrained in the charitable sector?

Many of the men who attended this dinner probably have their own direct relationships with charities. What attitudes and behaviours do they bring to those meetings? Many fundraisers have spoken on social media about the harassment and inappropriate behaviour they received from donors, and some of these stories are blood curdling (see also these blogs from Beth UptonViki Hayden-Ward and Simon Beresford).

How well is the fundraising sector equipped to respond to this? What duty of care do charities extend to their fundraisers in respect of potential inappropriate behaviour by donors? Are some fundraisers encouraged to turn a blind eye to such behaviour for fear of jeopardising the relationship with the donor? The predominant professional ethic in fundraising is one of Donorcentrism, under which the ethical course of action is the one that prioritises outcomes (tangible or intangible) for the donor. Does this reification of donors along the lines of the accepted notion of ‘customer sovereignty’ (the customer is always right) contribute to any ethical tensions in standing up to what has been described as ‘donor dominance’?

I won’t even begin to attempt to answer these questions. But they, and others like it, need to be asked. It’s possible the FT story on the Presidents Club has opened a massive can of worms, far bigger than we originally thought.

  • Ian MacQuillin is director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank.

Hat tips:

  • Damian O’Broin for alerting me to the 2010 Independent article
  • Russell Benson for the insight about attendees at the Presidents Club dinner probably being direct donors to other charities.

4 thoughts on “OPINION: What do we need to learn from the Presidents Club debacle?”

  1. I have mixed feelings about the ‘Presidents Club’ incident, this is why. But let me preface this by saying that never in fifty years fundraising have I ever organised or benefited from a ‘male only’ event, so this is not an argument for the defence, just an argument for the fundraisers who took the money.

    First off, events like this were – if not acceptable – tolerated thirty years ago. Young (and not so young) city types lived in a world where taking risks and reeking testosterone were axiomatic. Giving outrageous amounts to charity demonstrated success, and went some way towards balancing the shirts, the braces, and the Ferraris. But still a way of showing off. And the result of an evening of self-indulgence, disguised as an evening of charitable outflow, is several hundred thousand pounds, maybe as much as a couple of million, given competitively but distributed by a group of Trustees of apparently bombproof integrity and respectability.

    I cannot see how a charity fundraiser can be criticised for accepting funds raised by an established charity of good repute with senior City figures its Trustees.

    And given that many – maybe even most – of the fundraisers involved would be women, and consequently not invited (that is not to say that male fundraisers were invited either) to a private event taking place behind closed doors and – as the non-disclosure agreements show – with a conscientious approach to, shall we say, privacy – how could they know? How could they know?

    Frankly a brief item on ‘Slackberry’ in 2010 is not much of a practical criticism of charities’ due diligence.

    The good thing is that times have changed and this tacky organisation has been brought down by the FT report, and I guess that fundraisers will be more inquiring in future of donations from posh boys.

    But the truth, my friends, is not so much in our charities as in the City, which makes huge amounts of money, craves respect, but has a dark side – which it knows and seeks to conceal. Where we as fundraisers need to be careful is to be aware of that dark side, and of its extent. Inappropriate touching is not the only way that a City donation can be tainted.


    1. Yes, I’d agree with you Andrew that the Slackberry piece isn’t much evidence – it’s not like it was a big expose on Newsnight. And I agree that if you are presented with what is ostensibly a bona fide reputable trust stuffed with ostensibly reputable people then you have no real reason to question their ethics and the default position ought to be to accept the donations without question unless there are good reasons to ask questions. I agree that (probably) little blame can be attached to most charities who accepted donations from the Presidents Club.

      But this has been going on for so long that I do find it hard to think that in all that time no-one at all got any qualms about it or raised a red flag because of something they’d heard. Former Labour shadow minister (he’s just resigned) Lord Mandelsohn says he was at this year’s event representing a charity he’s president of that receives money from Presidents Club. If true, then even if there had been do FT investigation this year, then some report of the nature of the event must have got back in some form to Lord Mendelsohn’s charity, even if it were in the form of a ‘you won’t believe what goes on there’ style chat with other trustees (though he said he didn’t witness any of the worst going on he was still there for the ‘give your missus a breast op’ auction).

      My point in talking about this is not to criticise charities for the decisions they made, but to question whether there were any factors that might have inhibited them from making better decisions.


  2. Ian, I agree with the majority of your piece, particularly around the need to professionalize fundraising. Professionalization will never eliminate these terrible events completely, but it may allow for quality and well intentioned nonprofits the ability to distinguish themselves more clearly from trash like this when it does occur.

    I have significant concerns around the implication of not returning funds generated through any amoral, illicit or illegal means. In this respect my argument is largely deontological. Keeping funds which were generated using these tactics will not only damage public and donor trust, it will condone these activities. Though there may be no immediately apparent victims of the evening’s activities, the arrogant sexist attitude about women will, even in some small way, be justified through the acceptance of these funds.

    There are rampant consequences of sexism apparent in our societies, with numerous victims every day, and it should not be tolerated. By accepting and not returning these donations, a nonprofit is simply elevating their beneficiaries (victims of say hunger, or disease) over the victims of over-sexualization and discrimination. No matter how loudly a charity denounces the sexist fundraising events in public, it will mean nothing if they silently keep the money.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Jim.

      You talk about elevating the the ‘victims’ of hunger, disease etc (i.e. charity beneficiaries) above the needs of ‘victims’ of sexual discrimination, with a very strong implication that that would be the wrong course of action and it should be the other way round.

      In this case there are two groups each with their own different priorities. So the only three options are:

      a) Needs of victims of sexual discrimination are more important than needs of victims of hunger, disease etc (beneficiaries)

      b) Needs of victims of hunger, disease etc (beneficiaries) are more important than the needs of victims of sexual discrimination.

      c) The needs of both groups are equally important and need to be carefully considered and balanced.

      Irrespective of whether charities have a moral responsibility to their beneficiaries and the victims of sexual discrimination, they only have a legal responsibility (in the UK at least – not sure about other countries) to satisfy the needs of their beneficiaries.

      Putting any other groups’/stakeholders’ needs ahead of their beneficiaries is always going to lead to ethical and legal dilemmas that cannot easily be solved by saying that one group automatically has moral primacy – which is begging the question. Making these difficult balancing acts are what we pay charity SMTs and don’t pay trustees to do and the answer in any particular situation or context isn’t always obvious and certainly not simple.

      I think the solution that I proposed in the blog – reject future donations and severe all ties but not return donations if this would cause significant harm to beneficiaries – satisfies the dilemma of balancing the needs of one group against the needs of the other. This sends a message that behaviour like this will not be tolerated and does not condone any past behaviour.

      There’s a principle in philosophy that ‘ought implies can’ – that if you are morally/ethically obligated to act in a certain way, then you must be *able* to act in that way. It’s meaningless to say you ought to do something that you cannot do. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ought-implies-can

      So take Peter Singer’s famous drowning child example. If you cannot swim, there is no sense that you ought to go into the water to save the child’s life as doing so would have zero chance of saving the child and most likely result in your death (however, you ought to help the child as best you can, perhaps by alerting others to the situation).

      In the case of the President’s Club, if you cannot return the money (because, for example, you have already spent it and do not have the current cash equivalent) then there is no sense that you ought to return any donations you have received, notwithstanding any harm you might cause by trying to return money you don’t have (though if you have massive reserves and do have the cash equivalent, that is a different story – but still doesn’t deliver the simple answer that you ought to return it).

      There’s also a question of fairness and natural justice regarding the harm that might be caused to beneficiaries and other stakeholders in returning donations

      A British journalist reported that a charity that had decided to repay £100,000 to the Presidents Club would have to make three staff redundant in order to make a cost saving in order to do so. I don’t know whether this is true, but even if it isn’t, it makes for a useful thought experiment. https://twitter.com/IsabelOakeshott/status/956492140766552064

      It is simply not fair that a person who is in no way morally culpable for what happened at the Presidents Club should lose their job and their livelihood, and suffer the potentially serious harmful consequences that would follow, in order for a charity to satisfy a deontological moral principle: why ought a person who has done nothing wrong pay the price for the misdemeanours of others?


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