by Andrew Cates, CEO of SOS Children UK
"Riding the waves of Culture" is an interesting book by Fons Trompenaars which explores the differences between cultures across Europe and the world. I read it about twenty years ago, before being posted to Africa for the first time. I was particularly struck then by the variation around the world between what is an individual's "private space". I still find the book useful today, especially for understanding what appears to be inappropriate or rude behaviour by others. The book gives, as an example, the contrast between an American (who would throw you his car keys as readily as throw you a cold beer) versus a "typical" German (who might not even let his own wife drive his BMW). Ask the German to borrow his car and the request itself may upset him, but with an American you may not even need to ask. Their reaction to an advertising flyer left on their windscreen, equally, will be different. There are a lot of other examples of what kind of criticisms are considered acceptable and what kinds of approaches and requests offend. Austrians won't talk about salaries and Germanic "appeals to authority" generally appear very rude to Brits.
Uninvited intrusion on private space is offensive and disrespectful in every culture, but the limits of private space vary massively. In the UK we do not feel it appropriate to approach strangers on the street and ask them for Direct Debits ("chugging" or "charity mugging"). I am neither old enough nor posh enough to regard self-introduction as rude in itself, but in the ultra-busy lives most of us lead, the thinking time afforded by walking is needed to cope. Interrupting someone's private thoughts walking down the street is just not welcome.
Equally, much of the Direct Mail sent by charities is emotionally disturbing and, in Britain, where emotional engagement is broadly a private thing, this is an intrusion which is not respectful to donor's private space. We have complained that the Fundraising Standards Board (which should set high standards for UK charities but sets rather low standards) only prohibits "any images or words that cause unjustifiable distress or offence" with "unjustifiable" as a loop-hole for poor conduct. The charitable sector as a whole does not have high enough standards on respecting donor privacy. By contrast although SOS Children do not use TV adverts (we prefer to spend our money on the children we help), we think people in the UK have a choice between commercial and non-commercial TV and do accept neutral adverts into their homes as part of that deal. If we were given free TV adverts, we would use them.
Yet, in parallel, our colleagues in some European countries and in the developing world use street fundraising. Indeed, they recently advertised in the UK for a manager to help improve their street funding efforts which caused some confusion amongst our donors. The advert was also rather out of character for SOS because we normally reassure potential employees that we offer a positive working environment where fundraisers are only asked to do respectful and positive fundraising. But we should emphasise that in all countries we do respect donor privacy, it is part of our core values and we would not do anything in any country where we felt it was instrusive. Chatting on the street in the sunshine of mañana may be different from blocking Britain's busy urban walkways, and may be respectful if done well. Anyway I was always taught that good governance meant "every decision is taken by someone with the time and knowledge needed to take it properly". Therefore I defer to my Mediterranean colleagues to decide what our core values mean in practice for them.