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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

All is not fair in fundraising

This opinion piece is about 9 years old

Susan Smith says cancer charities shouldn't be fighting over a campaign idea even in the competitive world of professional fundraising

In a David versus Goliath charity sector story this week tiny Edinburgh based Unite Against Cancer accused fundraising giant Cancer Research UK of stealing its idea.

And to be honest, the evidence would seem to back them up, Cancer Research UK’s We Will Unite campaign is remarkably similar in several ways to Unite Against Cancer’s idea. Unsuprisingly, Unite Against Cancer, which was set up by Colin Smith after his brother died aged just 17, is outraged.

With an annual income in 2013 of just £43,000, the volunteer-led Unite Against Cancer is not in a position to take on the might of Cancer Research UK, which raised £556m in the same year. And it doesn’t really have a case anyway – you can’t patent a fundraising idea. Just last year, there was public outrage when the ALS Association in the United States attempted to do just that with the ice-bucket challenge. It was forced to withdraw its application to the US Patent and Trademark Office.

These days anyone can tell their story quickly, easily and very publicly, so like any other big corporate body, charities can't assume entitlement to a good name or public money

Charities, and in particular fundraisers, are always stealing ideas off each other, and as ideas go a wristband campaign is not the most original. Cancer Research UK is in the position to fundraise millions of pounds from this campaign – something Unite Against Cancer couldn’t hope to achieve in its wildest dreams. And in the end, all the cash will be going to fund research into a cure for cancer anyway, so many will wonder what the fuss is all about.

Well, it just doesn’t feel right. Charities are set up by passionate people determined to make a difference, usually because, like Colin Smith, they have a personal connection to the cause. They have the right to do that in whatever way they chose, which is why there’s no law against two charities having exactly the same purpose.

This isn’t the first time that big charities have moved into the territory of smaller organisations and generally a behind the scenes agreement is made. So, English charities that run UK-wide media advertising campaigns, for example, may agree to transfer a proportion of donations to a Scottish sister organisation.

According to Colin Smith, he would have accepted such an agreement but Cancer Research UK refused. This would suggest that dialogue on both sides wasn’t exactly exhaustive.

These days anyone can tell their story quickly, easily and very publicly, so like any other big corporate body, charities can't assume entitlement to a good name or public money. Charity reputations are precious and while this little incident is unlikely to dent Cancer Research UK’s huge public popularity, a more respectful approach could have kept everyone happy, and probably raised more money for cancer research.

The public expect their charities to be beyond reproach – that’s a tall order, but professional charities with big budgets, lots of staff and plenty of experience really ought to make every effort to be so.