A BBC Panorama investigation has revealed that
funds managed on behalf of Comic Relief included investments, for a time,
in arms, alcoholic drinks and tobacco manufacturers.
The BBC claims "Panorama has learnt that between
2007 and 2009, some of these investments, amounting to millions of
pounds, appear to contradict several of its core aims."
Panorama pinpointed investments
including £630,000 in shares in arms firm BAE
Systems and more than £300,000 in alcohol manufacturer Diageo.
The BBC also refers to evidence which suggests Save the
Children censored criticism of energy firms to avoid upsetting
Both charities deny any wrongdoing.
For Comic Relief, which has raised over £1bn making it one of
the UK's most wealthy and significant charities, it was clearly a
wake-up call about ethical investment. It sounds like the process
around decisions has been reviewed since the period in question,
The main issue is careful selection of investments, in line with
a company's values. This is all part of being credible and
trustworthy with everybody involved: the public, fundraising,
partnership with other charities, governments and NGO bodies,
front-line work using the funds as the end result of all the effort
Hold on, a cynic might say, you've missed the point.
Surely what's important is getting the greatest return on
investment, in order to create more funds for the charity to do
more great work.
Money is money, right?
Wrong. The ethics behind the money, and how it is invested, is
also important. All organisations need to look behind the numbers,
at how the money is created.
What we value affects how we do things, including decisions
about appropriate investments.
The question is nuanced: it is not an absolute, about
whether it is intrinsically 'good' or 'bad' to invest in defence or
alcoholic drinks companies.
Both BAE and Diageo are leading British-based global business,
high in the FTSE 100, with a long heritage. They are in high
scrutiny sectors - but then, if you got nitpicky, there are plenty
of those. And along the way they have had their share of exposure
to ethical issues.
However they are legitimate businesses held accountable through
good governance and regulation to navigate the particular
challenges of their markets. Britain is a major force in global
peacekeeping, we also lead developments in defence, so it would be
naïve to say we should not have an arms business.
But is an investment in a defence engineering company in line
with helping 'people affected by conflict'?
Diageo works closely with the Portman Group and Drinkaware on
promoting responsible drinking. But the Health Select Committee
recently questioned whether the big alcohol groups did enough, or
were taking advantage of weaknesses in regulation around alcohol
advertising. A tricky area, out of synch with another stated aim of
Comic Relief - 'working to reduce alcohol misuse and minimise
alcohol related harm'.
The issue is sticking to the stated purpose and values of the
So questions are raised about the appropriateness of investing
in arms or alcohol businesses.
As one of the most high profile charities, and instantly
recognised brands, it has a responsibility to uphold its reputation
Its fundraising fests, every other year, galvanise the support
of glitzy celebrities and hundreds of thousands of people up and
down the land - from classic sketches to simple phone-in
It's one of the charities close to RY's heart. We hold events
through the day, enthusiastically raising donations.
Sometimes the ethical colour of the money is grey, there's no
straightforward black and white.
There is clearly no intent to harm, and no malfeasance,
Comic Relief has a very particular purpose and beliefs. It makes
a clear and compelling case about its work, and needs to uphold the
same views through its investments.
It's easy to say that investments are packaged up into a
portfolio, but when the scale is this big - and the focus of the
charitable work for which the funds are used is so specific - then
it is both possible and imperative to pay attention to the money
This is good governance, and good practice, to preserve the
ongoing commitment of everybody involved.
These choices matter to all of us who support Comic Relief, and
to help it continue to make a positive difference in the world.