Oxfam scandal linked to Sport Relief raising a third less on the night

Fears have been raised about the potential impact of the Oxfam sexual abuse scandal on the wider charity sector after Sport Relief’s on-the-night appeal raised about a third less than last year.

In 2016, the last time the BBC fundraiser was held, £55.4m was raised on the night and a record £72.5m in total but this year’s amount currently stands at £38.2m, just over half the final amount from two years ago.

The charity sector has endured a turbulent few months as a result of the Oxfam scandal. In October, the charity revealed it had dismissed 22 staff members over sexual abuse allegations in the previous year. More recently, it temporarily suspended its work in Haiti to investigate claims of former staff paying for sex.

What happened in Haiti?

Oxfam has been accused of covering up an inquiry into whether its staff used sex workers in Haiti in 2011 during a relief effort following the previous year’s earthquake. It is alleged those who were paid by the aid workers may have been underage. An investigation by the Times found that Oxfam had allowed three men to resign and sacked four others for gross misconduct after an inquiry into sexual exploitation, the downloading of pornography, bullying and intimidation.

How much money could Oxfam lose?

The government has threatened to cut funds to Oxfam unless it shows “moral leadership”. In 2016-17, Oxfam’s income was £408.6m, according to its annual report, including £31.7m from the DfID. Aidan Warner of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations said: “They will be concerned not just about the money but the endorsement that the relationship with DfID represents, and they are clearly working hard to regain the confidence of the government as well as the public.” 

How much does the DfID give to NGOs?

Last year the UK government dedicated £13.3bn to international aid. About £1.2bn of UK aid is spent annually through NGOs. In 2016, the UK was one of only six countries to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, a target set by the UN for all developed countries. Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, has said the UK remains committed to this target, despite some Tory MPs calling for it to be dropped.

Should other NGOs be worried?

A number have now been implicated. Some of the employees involved in the Haiti case went on to work for other NGOs. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times also reported that more than 120 workers from Britain’s leading charities have been accused of sexual abuse in the past year. Save the Children, which in 2016 secured multi-year contracts worth £91m with the government, had 31 cases, 10 of which were referred to the police. The British Red Cross, which admitted a “small number of cases of harassment reported in the UK”, received £16.3m in DfID funding.

Oxfam, which is listed as a “long-term partner” on the Sport Relief website, said last month it had lost 7,000 regular donors in the wake of the latter revelation but charity bosses have been hopeful that the rest of the sector would not be affected.

Andrew Purkis, an ActionAid trustee and former Charity Commission member, said it was too early to draw definitive conclusions about Sport Relief but added: “I think it would be surprising if the whole Oxfam furore, which many people are reading about – and we know it’s not particularly an Oxfam story, these problems are probably worse in a lot of other organisations – did not have an effect.

“Quite a lot of Sport Relief is going about and delivering aid in places [associated with the scandal] like Africa and I think it would be very odd if some of that [controversy] did not rub off … people might think all that seems a bit dodgy.”

Earlier this month, the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, revealed that 80 current and historical cases of people being harmed or being at risk of harm were reported to the Charity Commission in the wake of the Haiti scandal. Seven of the 26 organisations that came forward reported cases in the current financial year.

Stephen Lee, professor of voluntary sector management at Cass business school in London, said research had shown members of the public often struggled to distinguish between different charities, making it plausible that other organisations were paying the price for Oxfam’s failings. But he also said Sport Relief’s many corporate donors may be engaging less because of the fear of reputational damage by association.

“Is it [the fall in money raised] a consequence of individual donors giving less through the programme?” said Lee. “That’s probably part of it but it must also be corporate donors reacting to what must be a negative impact on the charity brand. Brand managers may take more of a backseat going forward.”

Like all of the experts the Guardian interviewed, Lee suggested a mix of forces were likely at work. He said Sport Relief might be suffering from the fact that it was a “tired format”.

Others said austerity, which could limit what the British public are willing and able to pay, may also have contributed, as well as the end of using white celebrities for appeals, after it was condemned by an aid watchdog as “poverty tourism” that reinforce white saviour stereotypes.

Sport Relief had stated in advance that this change to its campaigning could lead to less cash being raised but would be justified by the wider picture. However, Purkis suggested the approach could encourage some people who were previously put off to donate more.

Daniel Fluskey, head of policy and research at the Institute of Fundraising, said even if the Oxfam scandal did affect the Sport Relief appeal, he was confident it would not have a lasting effect.

“It’s possible that people picking up some of the stories did have an impact this year but I think if it has, it’s more likely to be a short-term dip rather than a long-term trend,” he said. “We saw last year with Grenfell and Manchester these emergency appeals can work well. I think it’s more likely to be a dip rather than something long-term but that doesn’t mean Sport Relief won’t be thinking about ways to keep people engaged and giving.”

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, stressed that it was important not to jump to conclusions.

“There’s a feeling that the public feel less inclined to trust – particularly large – organisations. We have to double down and make people not just donate but also give their time and attention. But, in the case of Sport Relief, I think it’s too soon to tell [the impact].”

Oxfam declined to comment.

A Sport Relief spokesman said the organisation “does not speculate about why our fundraising totals vary from year to year”. He said this year’s appeal had raised almost £40m.

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