Wednesday 22 February 2017

The fantasy of a well-supported charity: Spontaneous Combustion Support

Imagine a fictional charity, Spontaneous Combustion Support (SCS). This charity, as the name implies, provides advice, preventative care services, and post combustion family counselling, for sufferers of the grave affliction. The most visible work it does is sending volunteers and medical professionals to identify suspected sufferers displaying early symptoms (wisps of smoke escaping from the nostrils, high fever, insatiable desire for curry) and chill their cores, then monitor their ongoing progress.

SCS operates along typical charity lines. Its workforce and volunteer pool are highly motivated, well intentioned, and generally good at what they do. The charity is always struggling for funds and often has to dip into reserves to keep delivering its vital services. Its IT systems are nearly a decade old and often freeze, while the scanners that their volunteers used to identify especially hot individuals in public places tend to break down or identify those puffing tobacco.

The charity has a couple of good researchers but their efforts to develop better cures and diagnosis tools are limited by the need for them to also act as coordinators for SCS personnel on the ground. The company’s logistics a poor: emergency teams often scramble to rescue those who are either already piles of ash, or perfectly healthy but standing near radiators. Staff salaries are below those of the public sector and completely out of sight of comparable private sector positions.

The charity has no budget to train its senior leaders, to help its board bond and learn to support and challenge the executives appropriately, nor does it have nonrestricted money for raising funds. Its efforts to alert people to the dangers and early warning signs of spontaneous combustion are limited to free social media platforms and simple infographics on its website. In some areas the NHS welcomes its help, in others the reception is frosty.

In short it is a worthy charity providing an important service, surviving but not thriving.
One day tragedy strikes. The daughter of a prominent businessman taking a refreshing walk along the Thames is healthy one moment then seen with smoke billowing from her ears the next. When the affliction hits she is a mere 20 minutes from a trained SCS volunteer who could help. However, the public is not aware either of the disease or of the charity’s ability to cure it. She is first ignored, assumed to be a poor example of performance art, then finally an ambulance is called, but it takes her to a general hospital without dampening and chilling facilities. By the time a staff nurse alerts SCS, Alicia Postlethwaite is alight. A charity volunteer team exerts themselves to put out the blaze but is too late.

Alicia’s father, once recovered from his grief, decides to hold a fundraiser for SCS with the vow that nobody else should perish from such a preventable disease. Mr Postlethwaite consequently holds The Businesspeople’s Big Bucks for Back Office Bash, inviting all of his besuited friends for a glitzy four course meal and auction of pledges. His associates and colleagues are well aware of the importance of supply chain, upstream facilitation, quality logistics and coordination, and proactive governance. They see an opportunity not only to help SCS and make something good of Mr Postlethwaite’s grief, but to provide a new model for the charity sector. This fundraiser is unique: not a penny raised is ringfenced for the front line. The businesspeople compete in largesse to support all aspects of the SCS engine room.

The charity is turned around in a matter of months. It becomes the Google/Twitter/John Lewis of the charity world, with fantastic facilities, state of the art technology, trendsetting best practice project management. A chief executive is brought in from a FTSE 100 outsourcing conglomerate. SCS offers fun diversions for staff, great pay and CV potential, training and development budgets. The best of the best compete to work there - even if not all are strictly motivated by altruism or charitable feeling. Its comms are efficient, frontline staff are sent where they need to go when they need to be there, research is joined up and coordinates with other charities and the private sector & universities.

Writers from the FT and Economist run articles on SCS’ innovative restructuring. Management finds it can collaborate with local spontaneous combustion charities such as Cornwall Against Combustion and Burnley Burn-Not, combining its medical expertise with their greater knowledge and links with chronic sufferers. The public learn how to spot the first signs of the disease and know who to call. Soon spontaneous combustion is little more than a myth used to scare naughty children.

In summary, far more SC sufferers are treated and saved than would have been if Mr Postlethwaite had demanded that all the money he raised be spent on paramedics and body-fridges.

The question is: would this be bad? From the description above Spontaneous Combustion Support no longer sounds much like a charity – it sounds like a typical private sector company that happens to run on donations. 
Is that a problem? It is very much meeting its charitable purposes after all.
More to the point, why is the story above so unbelievable? Fictional disease aside, it does not seem unrealistic that those many in society who understand the importance of back-office and business process should be motivated to donate to charities in a sophisticated manner.

They should frankly be annoyed by calls for every penny to go on the front line, for overheads to be minimised, for accounting acrobatics or actual austerity to create misleading ratios between giving and direct charitable effect spending. It is understandable that many in the public view charities with suspicion, but given the sector’s progress in transparency and accounting openness, why is there no support among those whose own businesses are run with proper infrastructure, for the voluntary sector to have the same bedrock?