Charities’ fading moral high ground


On April 15th, I was part of a panel at the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) international conference in New Orleans. Thirty-five hundred delegates—mostly fundraisers— attended the conference from around the world.

The question to our panel was Are charities losing the moral high ground?

On April 23rd, the Globe and Mail filled in some blanks around the story that Peter Dalglish—a longtime leader within Canadian international development charities and recipient of the Order of Canada—had been arrested in Nepal for sexually abusing “the children he pledged to help.”

Over the years, “the global profile of Mr. Dalglish [was] as an erudite, roguishly charming leader wholly devoted to the well-being of children.”

And although Mr. Dalglish told the Globe, he “never had a civil or a criminal prosecution, ever,” evidence of misconduct seems to be mounting. Apparently, and according to the Globe:

  • An international school in Thailand placed Dalglish under investigation late last year and has now removed him from its board of directors, citing concerns about his presence around children
  • A school in Nepal says it banned him from its premises years ago, citing alleged conduct toward children that made administrators uneasy
  • Shirley Blair, a Canadian teacher and the director of the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School in Katmandu, banned Dalglish from the school after a series of events that called into question his behavior with children
  • In November 2017 the United World College Thailand, of which Dalglish is a board member investigated rumours of “inappropriate conduct involving children,” but found no evidence of abuse or exploitation.

Coming on the heels of other allegations of sexual misconduct, the Dalglish revelations should cause the charity sector worldwide, almost all of whom work with vulnerable populations, to pause for reflection


Have charities lost their moral high ground?

First let’s consider how charities occupy a perceived moral high ground in the first place.

As a concept, charity certainly holds a moral imperative. It is one of Christianity’s Seven Heavenly Virtues, a sixth century pope’s response to the Seven Deadly Sins. It was more of a carrot than a stick approach. Partaking in the former would save you from the latter.

Charity is sanctified in other world religions as a path to God’s grace.

But the notion of charity as we experience it today is mostly expressed as an idea of giving to those less fortunate than oneself. And that is a substantially different theology.

In hindsight, it was a handy bit of branding and smart choice—to turn a heavenly virtue into an organization and assume the qualities of that virtue. To underscore the religiosity of their activity, people who worked in charity called their actions as “God’s work.”

So, let’s just consider that any moral high ground held by charities is a high ground charities took upon themselves. It was helpful in two ways—the moral high ground assisted in raising money. Who doesn’t want to ward off the consequences of seven deadly sins? To offset any misdemeanor with a charitable contribution?

It also allowed the church to consolidate their role in the delivery of health and social services, a path littered with tragedies in its own right.


But the charity economy now extends well beyond a neighbourly or religious act.

Charities, many of which continue to be religious organizations, are the primary mechanism western governments use to deliver social programs—health, education, arts, community services and international development.

The total amount of revenue that flowed through charities in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada totaled $3.94 trillion in 2014 according to government agencies in each of those countries.

If the charity economy of those four nations were a country, that country would be the 4th largest nation by GDP in the world—ahead of Germany and behind the U.S., the E.U. and China.

Charities in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada were also in possession of $3.7 trillion in assets that includes real estate, investment funds, hedge funds and more in 2014.

By way of comparison, the global auto industry is valued at $1.7 trillion.

There is an absolute bucket of money flowing through charities in the western world, the vast majority of it received from government.

Among western nations, about 60% of charity funding comes from government.

In addition, governments provide indirect subsidy to charitable organizations by issuing charitable tax credits that can be used by donors to reduce the amount of tax they pay. These tax credits then reduces the amount of money going into federal treasuries, which in turn reduces the amount of money available for government priorities.

The amount of charitable tax receipts issued by the U.S., U.K., Canadian and Australian governments in 2014 equaled $505 billion or slightly less than 13% of charities’ total revenue.

If the value of charitable tax credits issued by these four nations were a country, it would come in at number 23 on the GDP rankings, just ahead of Poland and behind Sweden.

What’s interesting about that number is, based on the proportion of revenue generated by charitable donations, fundraising communications might make up 12 or 13% of the communications from any given charity. The rest would be about their work and impact.

But it’s not.

Most charities talk about money. Most charities talk about money all the time.

And most charities take an aspirational approach towards their issues. They are curing cancer, wiping poverty off the map, saving forests or ending homelessness.

Many charities feel they have to keep the complexity of their mandate and the difficulties of working on intransigent problems to themselves and focus on the aspirational goal, the simple solution to a complex problem.

Couple that with the cloak of “good works” or even “God’s work” many charities wrap themselves in, it is no wonder that the role, work and impact of charities is fully understood by so few and that the critique faced to date by most charities is about fundraising.

In reality, the people who work in charities (by virtue of its sheer size, if nothing else) are no different from any other sector.

Many are good people. A few are very bad people. Most of us are just trying our best to work and look after our family, friends and community, despite being saddled with human frailty and no claim to the moral high ground.

But by believing and acting as though they occupy a higher moral ground, some charities do themselves—and, more importantly, the people they exist to serve—an injustice.

The lines of accountability become blurred.

Charities, who spend most of the communications promoting aspirational good works, may not feel the pressure to specifically articulate what they are doing and report on their impact.

Yet, all charities bear a basic responsibility to the citizens of their countries, citizens who are providing the resources needed for them to help the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Transparency also suffers because the assumption of moral superiority lends an air of undeserved religiosity and cloak of goodness to people who can use it to other ends. Some simply believe that being perceived as righteous is all the transparency they need.

So, while it may have been said that the higher you are, the closer you are to God, it has also been said that the higher you are, the harder you fall.



Some of the content of this blog was delivered at the international AFP in New Orleans, April 15, 2018 as part of the Rebels, Renegades and Pioneer track.

See this space next week for The Growing Gap: How the widening gulf between the rich and poor is impacting the charity sector.


Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World, in 2017.

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