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Reputation is all for charities in wake of Presidents Club dinner exposé – but it is men in the firing line

Forty years back, the full power of the media and of undercover reporting was revealed in the Watergate scandal. It was the ultimate displacement of a male ruling class dominated by machismo and hubris. Now a media coup by the Financial Times, in which some guests at the Presidents Club annual men-only dinner were revealed to have groped hostesses apparently hired to service senior figures in British business, politics, finance and entertainment, has done the same.

We awoke to national news headlines, emergency questions in the House of Commons, resignations from senior positions in public office, and the demise of a charity that had been regarded only 36 hours previously as a bona fide organisation of some significant means and import.

Two big London beneficiaries of the Presidents Club dinners took decisive action – Great Ormond Street Hospital said it would be returning all previous donations from the club (see tweet below), while the Evelina Children’s Hospital is reportedly turning down a £500,000 pledge. Others too have joined the exodus.

At one level, it is easy to see why and how this City-inspired, charity fundraising story has mushroomed into a disgrace of national importance. But this is not, in the first instance, a story about charity – even though there are certainly lessons to be learned.

The behaviour of some of the men at this event – many of them leaders in their field – reveals a continuing deep-seated hypocrisy and in-built resilience within male elites across the political, business and, yes, charitable worlds. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to promote equality of opportunity and the rightful advancement of women in the day job, while enjoying the so called “benefits” of female exploitation by night.

There is, of course, a long history in this. Men, particularly rich and powerful men, have long exploited women and sought, through payment by money or “in kind”, to advance their own interests through the humiliation and degradation of the opposite sex. While such behaviour might in this and in other contexts be considered to be legal, it is rarely regarded by society as morally acceptable.

These were acts of recreational sexism of the worst kind, initiated and endorsed in the name of charity.

Reputation is everything

Charity and the act of supporting charitable causes can of course give pleasure (or even minor benefit) to the giver as well as to the beneficiary. But to be acceptable across society, charitable giving must always be offered within the broader spirit and the values associated with charitable endeavour itself.

Research tells us that these values focus around selflessness; the advancement of mutual respect and respect for others; the pursuit of equity and the eradication of injustice; and the promotion of truthfulness and transparency. Each of these values lie at the heart of what constitutes acceptable charitable behaviour; their absence or their active denial makes the behaviour unacceptable.

This is why charities are so protective of their reputations. These are reputations that are hard won and which are put at risk, as in this case, in an instant. This is why The Great Ormond Street Hospital and other beneficiaries of the Presidents Club are right to refuse current donations and to return previous ones (despite some arguing it is “regretable” to do so). Acceptance of these donations would be, in themselves, a moral outrage and offensive to the values that sustain and legitimise all charities.

For those responsible for managing charity reputations, the broader conclusion from this is equally clear – make sure that you have in place a transparent policy by which you can judge whether your own actions, or those of others, meet accepted standards of practice, before fundraising activity is commenced. If you do not have such a policy in place, put one in place now. Help is at hand at the Office of the Fundraising Regulator.

The validity of charitable endeavour rests upon two closely connected virtues – trust and integrity. Today, many will regard those who attended the President’s Club event with less trust and integrity. Any charitable inclination is likely to inform us that they are right to do so.

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