The Presidents' Club: notes on the scandal

Many of you will have read the FT article (and consequently a number of other pieces) regarding the Presidents’ Club fundraising event. In fact, I know that many of my friends, colleagues or former colleagues saw this content as no fewer than 10 (and counting) sent me the link with a variety of accompanying emojis.

As someone who has delivered charity galas and fundraising dinners for the last 10 years (the entirety of my career) and as someone whose small business serves to deliver these events, this sort of “news” is not a complete surprise and yet it something that has really grabbed people’s attention and has the potential to give the sector a bad name.

I should definitely start this by saying that I think that the behaviour referred to at the Presidents’ Club is completely unacceptable and vile. This behaviour is something I have experienced first-hand and am glad that the issue is being brought to light. 

Here are a few other observations/reflections based on my experience (in no particular order):

  1. When the #TimesUp campaign launched and indeed, when Harvey Weinstein was first exposed, my thoughts turned to the experiences I have had where tolerating inappropriate behaviour and harassment was part of the job. Although this behaviour was not always in a work context, I have vivid memories of being encouraged to wear an LBD by (female) bosses and of p*ssed men at golf days and dinner dances asking how much they could bid for me. The classic raffle selling line “£10 for one, £30 for a strip” still rings in my ears.
  2. In my experience, many charities or organising committees have willingly “used” their female staff to promote their fundraising activities on the night. I do question whether charities would put male staff in the same position however the reality is that many fundraising and events teams are made up of females. The idea that good looking staff have been hired in especially for the Presidents’ Club event is something else altogether.
  3. The concept of staff receiving a written instruction to “dress sexy” is ludicrous, right? But how many hostesses, wait staff and retail workers at bars, restaurants and stores are given similar restrictions and forced to conform to a certain “look”? I hope that this is now an opportunity for charities (and indeed corporates) to reconsider their duty of care to their staff – both females and males – when putting them in a room full of guests who have been plied with alcohol.
  4. I do find it interesting that some charities who have benefitted from this particular fundraiser are now returning the money. I don’t yet know how I feel about this or whether I think that the best thing to do. For many of the larger organisations that I have heard referenced, there should probably be due diligence in place that ensures that they are only accepting funds from reputable organisations. That said, it’s one thing for larger organisations to return Presidents’ Club’s “dirty money” but for many organisations gifts of that scale are difficult to turn down or give back.
  5. As former chair of the Special Events Forum for the charity sector – now led by the Katy Payne (Parkinson’s UK) and Elizabeth Charles (Action Against Hunger) – we have often discussed the “Death of the Gala Ball”, questioning whether the traditional gala dinner has run its course. This sort of negative publicity threatens to have a significant impact on what is a thriving industry; events fundraising plays a truly valuable part in many organisations’ fundraising and I have worked with at least a few charities whose annual gala makes up the majority of their fundraising income. So, I therefore hope that guests and donors will not be deterred from supporting these events – they really do enable great causes to raise transformative sums and there are many great examples that do this in a way that doesn’t exploit.
  6. It’s definitely worth differentiating between in-house charity events and what we in the sector refer to as “beneficiary” or “third party” events. The latter are those hosted by a group/club/company who then give a cheque for funds raised to the charity at the end. In most cases, the charity holds little or no responsibility for the processes or plans for these.

When I started as an events consultant/freelancer, my first client was an education organisation who wanted to move away from the traditional gala dinner to deliver an immersive experience. Whereas there is undoubtedly still a place and an appetite for the gala and I continue to work with lots of charities delivering this kind of event, the immersive project was one that I feel most proud of – not least because of its fundraising outcomes and the creativity that went into the content (produced by Boz Temple-Morris and the Holy Mountain team), but because of the guts that it took for the charity to move away from the regular format in order to focus the evening’s programme on its work, rather than the presentation of the food or the colour of the flowers.

I am ridiculously proud of the work my peers across the charity sector have achieved and continue to achieve. Perhaps this will remind our Directors and Senior Management Teams how important it is to ensure that they have policies and procedures in place to protect themselves and their staff. I hope that this negative publicity doesn’t reflect badly or impact the hundreds – indeed thousands – of organisations striving to deliver meaningful events and raise critical funds for their work. But I also hope it will challenge organisations to think about their fundraising activity and to ensure that every aspect of their events reflect their mission, vision and values.