Time's up on men using philanthropy to distract from their bad behaviour

The Presidents Club bash is far from the only example of "a good cause" being used to justify bad behaviour. It's time for a change

January 24, 2018
The Presidents Club fundraiser was held in Mayfair's Dorchester Hotel. Photo: PA
The Presidents Club fundraiser was held in Mayfair's Dorchester Hotel. Photo: PA

The Financial Times this week exposed sexual harassment at the President’s Club Charity Dinner, an annual men’s only blacktie event that has taken place in London for 33 years. Hosted by comedian and writer David Walliams, attendees at this year’s event included Conservative minister for children and families Nadhim Zadhawi and Department of Education board member David Meller (who has since quit).

According to the FT, female hostesses specially hired for the event were made to wear revealing black dresses, matching “sexy” underwear and high heels, were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements they were not given time to read, and were subjected to inappropriate comments and multiple instances of sexual assault. Items auctioned on the night included breast enhancement to “spice up your wife” and naming rights for a children’s book by Walliams.

Women across the media, finance and politics reacted with horror, online and later at Prime Minister’s Questions. Labour’s Jess Philips told the house that “Women were bought as bait for . . . rich men less than a mile from where we stand. That is unacceptable behaviour.” Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson has apparently already written a letter to the Charities Commission.

While critics are right to condemn the event, there is a bigger question here worth addressing which Swinson’s letter hints at. The Presidents Club advertised the event as a fundraiser for Great Ormond Street Hospital, and it raised over £2m for the charity, who say they will now be investigating the allegations.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising agency WPP, who had a table at the event (although Sorrell did not attend this year), told the BBC that “We issued a statement last night saying we won’t support the charity in future, which is regrettable because it is a charity that supports numerous children’s charities and has done a lot of good work.”

This is not the first time that charity fundraising has been used as a shield for unacceptable behaviour. At the extreme end, we might think of Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and Max Clifford—it seems as if behind every famous man who was later revealed as a sexual abuser there is a string of awards for charitable work, including from the British honours system. Jimmy Savile famously made a career out of it, with Dan Davies recounting that journalists sat on stories about the entertainer due to his “exceptional popularity and the work he did for charity.”

Back in 2005, when interviewed with Max Clifford in the Guardian, Piers Morgan claimed that readers of the newspaper were unfairly critical of the pair: “But we are good people, you know? Max especially is involved in a lot of charity work—he has his hospice and so on.”

When Clifford was later charged with sexual offences, his barrister Richard Horwell QC appealed for a reduced sentence on the grounds that Clifford’s offences were old, and he had subsequently “devoted a considerable part of his time to charitable works for which he has raised substantial funds.”

Nor is this behaviour the preserve of older creeps. Younger men—without the same history of fundraising and high-profile charity work—have also tried to buy respectability via donations after being called out for inappropriate behaviour.

Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet knew of Woody Allen’s tainted reputation before agreeing to appear in an upcoming Allen film, but is giving his fee to charity as a result of the light shone on him via the #TimesUp campaign, as if that overturns his original decision to take the role.

There are examples outside showbiz, too. Damian McBride, who now works for Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, was 34 when he was forced to resign as an adviser to Gordon Brown in 2009 over attempts to smear the reputation of senior politicians. When in 2013 he wrote a book capitalising on his time working for Brown, he offered the royalties to his then employer, the Catholic charity Cafod. (They turned him down, after talking to their donor community.)

Although McBride’s behaviour is, of course, nothing like Savile’s, the cases raise a similar question: is the potential income from unchecked donors worth so much to charities that the subsequent reputational damage is justified?

Great Ormond Street Hospital have stated that they will be returning all previous donations from the Presidents Club Charitable Trust and would “never knowingly accept donations raised in this way.”

Simon Beresford, head of fundraising and marketing for CharityConnect, wrote in a furious blog post “It doesn't matter if these are important donors. It doesn't matter if challenging this behaviour may cause offence or mean that a short term fundraising target isn't met. We mustn't, as a sector, be complicit in this kind of behaviour anymore.”

It is, of course, entirely possible to fundraise without using young women as props—and indeed more efficient to do so without going through a third party such as Presidents Club.

In 2016 the Presidents Club annual dinner cost £597,790 to put on, for an event that made charitable donations of £1,610,000. Giving directly to charities would save face and save money—which could then be put to better use helping the vulnerable.

Charities, too, have to consider the impact of famous and infamous donors. Aidan Warner, external relations manager for NCVO, told Buzzfeed: "The easy thing is to take the money, but sensible charities know there are wider considerations to take into account. Taking money from an event like this wouldn't meet the standards that charities set for themselves or that the public expects of them."

It may be that wider change is needed. The Charity Commission have been awarded £5m extra funds from the government this week, due to the extra demands currently faced by the organisation—but this is just interim funding until they can persuade the big names of the charity sector, with the big incomes to match, to fund their work. Calls for better or additional regulation may be coming at the worst possible time.

The chair of the parliamentary committee on women and equalities, Maria Miller MP, suggested that the onus was on the business community to take equality seriously and for the government to strengthen the Equality Act.