Comic Relief: Not So Funny Now

All those good people who dutifully make fools out of themselves to raise money for good causes must be feeling a lot more foolish just now. Comic Relief has swapped its red nose for a red face after the Panorama expose that was aired on Tuesday night.
The charity may well be helping to avert disaster in other parts of the globe, but it has failed to effectively manage its reputation, the question now is just how bad the damage will be and whether the public will be quite so generous next time around.
Sometimes PR disasters are the result of innocent blunders, sometimes the result of bad behaviour, sometimes the organisation has done no wrong but just ends up looking bad.
Comic Relief at first claimed it had done nothing wrong before performing a U turn a few hours before the documentary was broadcast.
What Panorama revealed was that Comic Relief has been sitting on cash reserves of around £100 million which it invests in the Stock Market in order to make profits which allow it to pay its £17 million running costs and therefore keep its pledge to ensure that for every pound donated a pound is spent on a good cause.
This sounds like a really good ruse – except for two things. The first is that when we give on impulse to charity we tend to have an expectation that our money will be put to use immediately rather than invested in shares for a few years. Secondly it transpires that several million pounds have been in tobacco, arms and alcohol companies. This is great news in terms of getting a good return on investment, not so good when you consider the moral and ethical implications for a charity which is trying to make an impact in the Third World, so often scarred by conflict and health problems.
So how did Comic Relief respond and what will the damage be?
Being really cynical the timing has been as good as it could be for the Comic Relief team. The documentary was broadcast after this year’s appeal was complete, after being delayed for legal and other checks. Secondly it was shown on the night of Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service two hours later than its normal slot. Yet despite the fact it was buried down the news schedule on Tuesday the expose was the most read piece on the BBC news site, with way more views than the Mandela story, so it has certainly been noticed.
And when the charity asked for celebrities to take to social media to support the cause, the request had the opposite effect. For example comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted to his 1.5 million followers: “Those fairy cakes your kids baked for Comic Relief bought [Ugandan warlord] Joseph Kony a rocket launcher”.
The story first began to surface in the Spring and so comic Relief has had plenty of time to respond. It gave a clear and reasonable explanation for holding on to cash: to give time for other organisations to bid for funds and also monies were held back in order to ensure donations were well spent. But on the much more damaging issue of investing in arms and tobacco it blundered badly.
The reputational damage looming was obvious. It should immediately have stopped investing in the controversial businesses and announced the adoption of an ethical investment policy.
It deployed a law firm which tried to get the programme stopped stating it would “damage vulnerable people in the UK and around the world”. It stated that it had a duty to ensure it got the maximum return on its investment and then refused to say whether it was continuing to buy and sell shares in tobacco and arms.
This response did not go down at all well and so, at lunchtime on Tuesday chief executive Kevin Cahill announced the inevitable U Turn in a last ditch attempt to close the issue off.
Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen. There’s a long time before Comic Relief will be on the airwaves again, if indeed the BBC decides to retain it.
But there are lessons here for the voluntary sector. Many charities have become just like businesses, the only difference being that profits generated do not get paid out to shareholders but are invested back in the cause.
There is nothing wrong with that and it helps to ensure that they are, or become self-sustaining. However there is an important difference. Businesses exist in order to make a profit, charities exist in order to make a difference to others. We support them, volunteer for them and donate to them because we believe in what they do.
They in turn need to be careful. The public does not like charities paying their people excess wages. Mr Cahill gets £131,000 a year, which frankly is towards the upper limit of what the public deem acceptable five staff get £80,000 plus, a lot more than we pay our MPs.
And in the drive to make a difference across the globe we expect the highest ethical standards, not those of Gordon Gecko and the financial markets.

5 Replies to “Comic Relief: Not So Funny Now”

  1. I was the one who took the story to panorama. I have complained not just to the BBC but have presented my evidence to every newspaper in the UK. I started my quest to get this knowledge public for over 4 yrs. Every newspaper got to the point of running the story only to pull it at the last min after what I assume was pressure from Comic relief. So I was elated when purely by accident it was accepted by panorama. Comic relief knew 4 years ago about their investments and that the public would be outraged once they found out. The reason I know this is the news of the world rang them to ask for a comment just before they were going to run the story. Comic relief then put on pressure to stop the article being printed and therefore the issue never got published. This was the same with all newspapers. The only paper that published the story was the Sunday people, who after assurances they would do my story justice, they did it badly, but surprize surprise on the front page of the mirror the following day there was an exclusive from comic relief. One can only think bought off again.

    My intension of my 4 yr battle with the BBC and comic relief has always been not to ruin the charity, as it does grant money to some fantastic charities, but to change they way they operate so that their is complete transparency in what they do with what after all is not their money. Not just that but people also seem to have missed the point that even if you have never donated to comic or sports relief you have as gift aid is tax payers money.


    Andrew Goodwill

    1. Andrew – Thank you for these insights into your campaign – and many congratulations in getting the issue aired. Personally I’m heavily involved in the voluntary sector but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about the massive reserves that some charities hold and wonder how it is furthering their charitable objectives. And whilst I applaud the quest for sustainability I do believe that ethics and transparency are important for the sector!

  2. Nick,I am grateful for your article,and for Andrews efforts.Most have us have been involved in some way with Comic Relief and the revelations,not only of wrong investments but also of venal pressure to cover up, are extremely disquieting.All power to your efforts.

  3. One thing I did notice whilst looking at the last account is that as they lost 8 million pounds in investments when the stock market crashed, they have decided to put aside 15.7 million, or 10% of the total invested at that time in a fund call the equalisation fund. Which of course is invested in a cash fund. They don’t seem to realise that once they reserve that money for that purpose they have effectively lost it and the good work that money could have done.

    The CEO Kevin Cahill should be hanging his head in shame as he rights his resignation letter, as he has presided over this scandal for years. The buck should stop with him, a change in the trustees would be a good plan also. Maybe members of the public could be chosen to be trustees.

    Comic relief seems to me to have been turned into an investment club. I note that not one celeb other than Duncan Banatyne (if you call him a celeb) has stepped up to defend Comic relief. These stars need to remember that they are only clebs because we make them so, they could quite easily be just MPs, no not members of parliament but members of the public just like you and me.

    I really hope what I have done does not ruin the charity, but it will take a long time for the public to forgive, and even longer to forget.

    I will carry on with my battle until they finally do the right thing.

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