The Charity Market and Humanitarianism in Britain, 1870-1912
Sarah Roddy, Julie-Marie Strange and Bertrand Taithe
London: Bloomsbury, 2019
Hardcover. ix+224 pages. ISBN 978-1350057982. £85
Reviewed by Pat Thane
King’s College London
Studies of the expanding number of charities in nineteenth-century Britain have focussed upon their objectives, motivations and outcomes. This is the first account of their changing fund-raising methods. It argues that many charities ‘both mimicked and anticipated emerging business practices in marketing, advertising, branding and accountability’. Such practices were changing as businesses expanded at the same time as the technology of communication was changing with the growth of the press and of modern methods of illustration and advertising, and when unprecedented numbers of charities emerged, competing for funds in a country that was increasingly prosperous but increasingly aware of its many social problems. These techniques are conventional among present-day charities but the book demonstrates that they have a longer history than has generally been realised.
It focusses upon a few, mostly larger, charities which used modern marketing techniques effectively, initially on the Salvation Army, founded 1878, Dr Barnardo’s (1868), the Manchester Wood St Mission (1869). They all used new advertising techniques to raise funds. The Salvation Army looked to successful entertainers like Barnum and Bailey’s circus for inspiration as well as to commerce. The charities produced well illustrated magazines publicising their activities, and courted celebrity sponsors, ideally members of the royal family who were equally anxious at this time to gain popular support.
Among other fund-raising techniques they sold goods advertising their ‘brand’. The Salvation Army sold teapots picturing their founder William Booth and an early (1907) ‘Graph-o-phone’ recording of his voice describing the misery of the ‘submerged tenth’ whom they sought funds to help. They developed a mail-order catalogue selling everyday items including clothing. They could be ethical while being innovative, opening a workshop making ‘safety matches’ from resources less lethal to the workers who made them than the notoriously deadly conventional matches. Barnardo’s sold images of rehabilitated ‘waifs’ and trained boys in their care to make goods for sale. They inaugurated ‘self-denial day’ urging people to give up luxury or pleasure for one day and donate their savings to charity, while the Salvation Army from 1886 successfully ran a self-denial week with the same aim.
Meanwhile these and other charities continued to use older techniques like bazaars, street collections and collecting boxes placed in pubs, railway stations, workplaces. Groups of supporters took lengthy walks, collecting donations as they went. Charities raised funds from concerts, balls, garden parties, sporting events, music halls and were early to show films, to the horror of the puritanical Charity Organization Society (COS) who complained, ‘It is a mistake to appeal to selfishness and vulgarity instead of to charity’.
Charities, like contemporary businesses, became aware of the need to develop a distinctive ‘brand’ to establish a clear identity against burgeoning rivals. An important element of branding, as with their recent successors, was to devise a catchy memorable name. Hence the body founded as the East End Juvenile Mission became Dr Barnardo’s (a while before the founder gained his medical degree) to convey professionalism and reliability, and the Salvation Army began as the East End Christian Mission. Christianity was generally embedded in the brands to convey their ethical reliability.
This was all the more important in view of the fraud inspired by the growth of charities and their potentially large donations. There was no law against fraudulent fundraising until 1916, when wartime charitable generosity further stimulated fraudsters. Previously there is no means of knowing how extensive it was, but the efforts of charities to protect themselves suggest that it was not insignificant. They were not regulated by the Charity Commission, which had jurisdiction only over endowed charities until 1960. The COS appointed itself regulator, as part of its (largely unsuccessful) determination to direct and control the sector. It published a register of charities it judged reliable and a blacklist of others, defining reliability and urging donors to give only to charities conforming to its rigid principles. Their advice itself was not always reliable: in 1877 it charged Barnardo’s with misappropriation of funds and was forced to back down. Increasingly charities published their accounts to demonstrate their honesty.
The British Empire expanded in the late nineteenth century and charity expanded with it. Missionaries were major providers of humanitarian support but that is not discussed in the book. One example of aristocratic fund-raising is described: the Stafford House Committee established by the third Duke of Sutherland, one of Britain’s richest men, and his associates, established in the 1870s. In 1879 it raised the equivalent of £68.8m mainly to provide medical relief for soldiers in the Russo-Turkish war, later in the South African war, before the Duke gave up.
Overseas and domestic crises gained more for longer from the Mansion House Funds established by successive Lord Mayors of the City of London (each appointed for one year), fitfully in the 1860s, more regularly from 1870. A fund based in the national financial centre was trusted by potential donors nationally. The turnover of Lords Mayor was rapid but there was a more continuous secretariat. The Fund quickly became the principal means of responding to humanitarian emergencies, whether mining catastrophes at home or famine abroad, such as that in Bengal in 1874, though working men complained that the middle-class donors to the Fund were more willing to help poor people in Africa than at home.
The Empire took precedence over crises elsewhere: in 1877 the Fund refused to appeal for famine in Brazil when there was a similar crisis in India. It did appeal for victims of an Italian earthquake in 1909. £414,000 was raised for the families of victims of the Titanic disaster in 1912. The Lord Mayor announced each emergency and appealed for funds, supported by mayors of towns and cities throughout Britain, who issued the appeal and collected funds locally. This national approach, centrally organised, directing local branches and officials, was practised by a number of large charities, including Barnardo’s and the Salvation Army. It is described in the book as ‘franchising’, paralleling similar practices in business. It made sense for charities, as for business, at a time when communications, including transmission of funds, were slower and more difficult than in more recent times. And fundraisers familiar with each locality knew how best to target appeals with methods suited to the local culture. Large sums were raised regularly.
This is a short book (149 pages of text) covering a large subject and the account is essentially descriptive and limited to a few examples of a large and diverse sector. It expands our knowledge of the growing charitable work of the period, especially of fund-raising techniques, but provides little depth to understanding their operations: how the new techniques were devised; what debates went on around them. Did the charities consciously adopt business methods or devise them in parallel with business in response to similar needs to advertise themselves and raise funds in competition with others? Were they advised by business people among their sponsors and supporters? The authors seem critical of the charity sector for adopting the techniques of ‘commercial capitalists’, that it ‘hitched its wagons to a form of capitalism then in the ascendant’ , with practices ‘eerily’ similar to those of many modern ‘third sector’ NGOs. Perhaps charities then and now should rather be praised for using capitalist methods not for the personal profit for which they were invented but attempting to rescue impoverished victims of capitalism, for turning capitalism against itself. Unsuccessfully, alas, hence the continuing centrality of charitable action to British culture and the similarities between then and now.
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