NatWest’s Community Force programme is crushingly awful

NatWest’s Community Force programme creates huge amounts of waste for charities and doesn’t even reward merit. It’s the worst programme for giving money to charity I’ve ever seen. Here are the larger of my concerns about it:

  1. It’s massively wasteful

NatWest has given £6,000 to each of 395 charities who received the most votes in a public poll conducted on NatWest’s site. Any charity (or ‘project’ – a terrible term to which we’ll return) could enter, and then they had to drum up voters. It’s a popularity contest. We’ll come back to that.

NatWest allowed 5813 organisations to register. So NatWest has rejected 93% of its applicants. I’ve never seen a rate so high. (Why NatWest thinks it’s a good idea to engage and then disappoint 5418 charities and their supporters is a mystery.)

Even if the entry process took two seconds and was then a lottery, that would still be pretty awful. But in fact charities have to gather votes: collectively they have gathered 296,137 votes. Let’s do the maths.

On average, each charity has gained ~50 votes. That required some work: for example, I’ve been approached by loads of charities I’ve never heard of, and had umpteen emails forwarded by friends. Let’s suppose, probably conservatively, that each of those 5813 organisations has done three hours work to enter the contest and drum up voters.

That’s 41 hours of wasted work for every successful application. Across the whole programme, it’s 16,254 wasted hours work. Man, that’s a lot: it’s over nine person-years of work totally wasted just because NatWest has allowed way too many organisations to enter. Priced at the minimum wage, that would be a wasted wage bill of £99,000.

A responsible funder goes out of their way to deter applicants who are unlikely to succeed. The rather more progressive BBC Children in Need – mindful of this wastage – is busy trying to clarify its rules in order to cut the failure rate of its applicants from 3/4 (actually pretty good by industry standards) to 1/2.

From which it looks mighty like NatWest is more concerned about raising the profile of its community engagement than it is in actually doing anything useful. It’s egregious to waste so much charity time just to raise a corporate profile. If NatWest had really wanted to find great community-based charities, they could simply have called the Community Foundation Network.

  1. Public voting is no way of ensuring merit

This is a popularity contest. The organisations which win will be those who can garner most votes. Hmm: that is unlikely to be the organisations which are the best. Why would it be? Most of the people who vote – people with internet access, who are well-connected socially and so on – are unlikely to be the people who are most needy in society; and the ‘business’ of raising votes is a totally different ‘business’ to that of creating social change. (For example, there is only one entry from an organisation concerned about climate change, cited as a ‘national security concern’ even by those lefty liberals at the Pentagon [i].)

So we seem to have a massively wasteful mechanism for not choosing the best charities. Great. Then there are a few other Crimes Against Effective Giving.

  1. NatWest calls organisations ‘projects’

If you’re not a native in the Charity World, this will not strike you as heinous. But if you are, it will.

Projects finish. Organisations don’t – they continue, they develop, they have enduring influence. Calling organisations ‘projects’ leads people – nudges them, if you like – to think that the work will one day be done. It won’t. Charities are dealing with some of the most difficult problems on Earth – problems which no lesser brain that Warren Buffett says ‘have resisted great intellects and often great money’. They’re not going to be finished any time soon. Calling charities ‘projects’ belittles them, and encourages people – and NatWest has gone out of its way to put this dreadful term in front of as many people as possible – to trivialise their work. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, wrote a sequel called Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer in which he says thatTo make the greatest impact on society requires first and foremost a great organization, not a single great program’.

  1. NatWest makes ridiculous claims

Last year it gave £8,000 to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance. ‘With an £8,000 award, they’ve been able to carry on their invaluable, life-saving work.’

Really? Yorkshire Air Ambulance has revenue of  £3.75m, ie, this grant is less than the amount it gets through in less than a day (£8,000 x 365 / £3.75m = about 18 hours).  So not really enough ‘to carry on their invaluable work’, then.

But they also provide volunteering: doens’t that help?

Not much. NatWest does provides volunteering, by its staff and by encouraging anybody else to volunteer. But it seems fantastically unlikely that it’ll provide nine person-years of work per grantee – this is an annual programme, so that would mean nine people all year. Not going to happen.

This programme creates work, and rewards popularity rather than merit. Lots of people have reported that NatWest’s voting system is difficult to use. ‘Helpful banking’? Hardly.


Can’t you say that the work is being done by volunteers so shouldn’t be priced?

No. Because (a)volunteers’ time, just like anybody else’s time should be appreciated properly, and (b)that time, given to the charity, could have been spent doing something more useful.

Not all corporate giving is bad. Eurostar’s charitable programme is rather better –>

[i] Pentagon to rank global warming as destabilising force, 31 January 2010

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5 Responses to NatWest’s Community Force programme is crushingly awful

  1. Pingback: Forget business: philanthropy needs to learn from tons of other disciplines | Caroline Fiennes @carolinefiennes

  2. Pingback: Forget business: philanthropy needs to learn from tons of other disciplines | Caroline Fiennes @carolinefiennes

  3. S Gould says:

    Oh my word!

    Our charity was one of last years 6k winners, people only vote for the cause they believe in that has helped them the most in their particular situation. We were not a registered charity at that time as registration can only take place once 10k has been raised. The 6k gave us what we needed in order to register, to be taken seriously, to be noticed, to be able to sign up to Just Giving in order to except funds. Not all charities have the funds for PR, bid writing, printing, equipment to compete with the larger corporate sponsored charities who get precedence as its good business sense for philanthropists to invest in a branded charity name.

    Even though we help children the fact that we also help adults means we cannot be helped by Children in Need and the like.I hope you appreciate the other side of the fence point of veiw.

  4. I was delighted to see this article – it put my thoughts in a nutshell. I’m the chair of the South Herts Branch of the Motor Neurone Disease Association. Anyone who knows anything about MND knows that we really need the money – the MNDA is completely self funded and no-one knows what causes MND, there is no treatment – just the knowledge that you will die. I spent hours trying to get our votes, even while I was on holiday. Then I realised that if I was raising money for a school, all the parents, grandparents, local shops, friends and friends of friends woul vote too. We didn’t stand a chance. And all that time WAS wasted and took me away from other things I should have been doing.

  5. What an interesting pair of comments!
    S Gould: I’m glad that the programme helped you, but that doesn’t negate any of what I say: it doesn’t negate the point that loads of charities were encouraged to put work into applications which were unsuccessful, nor that NatWest’s resources could have achieved more if differently organised (e.g, not restricted, awarded on merit, etc.)

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