Thought leadership within any sector is often channelled through key events in the industry calendar, where the great and the good of a certain profession or market will proudly get together to celebrate – or highlight – the best practices that will drive them forward in the months ahead.
So no wonder there’s been significant cognitive dissonance in the media over a flagship, annual event held on 18 January at London’s Dorchester Hotel by charitable organisation the President’s Club.
According to a damning Financial Times expose, members of the 130-strong, all-female hosting team fielded on the night were subjected to openly lewd, suggestive and tactile sexual behaviour from particular individuals on the men-only guest list. As if that were not enough, the contents of some of the auction lots were highly questionable – such as a plastic-surgery course that was touted in the event’s glossy brochure as an ideal way to “Add spice to your wife”.
Another auction lot urged attendees to bid on a private evening with exotic dancers, while a third misleadingly offered meals in the company of Boris Johnson and Mark Carney – neither of whom was aware that his time had been put up for grabs. Proceeds were to be shared between various charities on whose behalf the President’s Club drums up funds.
The FT’s revelations sent shockwaves throughout charity circles, in which key figures detected a worrying gulf between the wider sector’s aims and the event’s boorish tone. Responding to a letter on the event from Lib-Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson – which was signed by more than 40 MPs – Charity Commission boss Helen Stephenson wrote: “Charities have a duty to fundraise responsibly and in line with their values. Their trustees must also consider the wellbeing and protection of staff and all those who come into contact with their charity – not just those who are there to help.”
As a result of the furore, the President’s Club announced that it would disband. What kind of effect can a badly managed industry event have on the sector in question? And what can organisers do to avoid such scenarios?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In any of life’s primary domains – be it friends, family, work, sport or hobbies – the most desirable goal should be that all comers are admitted as equals. And what really stands out as significant in this President’s Club event is the exclusion of women as equal partners. There’s this notion that women aren’t to be admitted as guests; that the only women who are allowed to be present are there in a subservient, objectified capacity – effectively as props, to fulfil a purely aesthetic role.
“There are reputational risks at large for any charity that has hitched its star to an event like this. The question that charities with these kinds of links must ask themselves is, ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ If money is being raised on your behalf through the use of practices that don’t align with your values as a charity, then does that mean you have automatically surrendered any credible claim to be an ethical stakeholder? That’s the level of toxicity and contagion that we’re talking about, here.”
Cooper explains: “In many ways, this event provides a classic case study in the field of supplier due diligence. In the US, Whole Foods Market is renowned for being particularly focused on this area, and vets its suppliers as thoroughly as it can. This will not always be possible for charities, which have limited budgets that may restrict their efforts to assess partners in their networks.
“But in that case, it’s a question of how they react to the emergence of negative facts. Whole Foods are quick to drop any supplier that has fallen short of their ethical standards, and similarly, it would be advisable for charities to publicly distance themselves from any fundraising efforts that have gone against the grain of what they stand for.”
In Cooper’s view, it is up to organisers to demonstrate that they are sensitive to the requirements of the sector or field for which the event is intended, and to be on top of the field’s current trends. Having a tin ear for tone, she notes, won’t do: “This President’s Club story brings back painful memories of the Northern Powerhouse conference I attended last year, which drew heavy criticism weeks before it even happened for its paucity of female representation. During the actual event, comedian Brian Conley delivered an evening routine that would have been more appropriate for a rowdy working-men’s club, and the whole thing failed completely to recognise women’s participation and value within the northern business community.
“My analysis is that when an event like this fails to strike the right tone, it’s often because a) inexperienced people have been tasked with putting it together, and therefore b) it has been assembled in a fragmentary fashion – so it’s only when it comes together that tonal flaws of chauvinism and misogyny become clear. However, the President’s Club event appears to be something altogether more sinister: a deliberate effort to exclude women because they’re not welcome as equals. That cannot be tolerated by any charity – and any individual who was there urgently needs to question how they regard the women with whom they work.”
For further thoughts on aligning values, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of the Dorchester Hotel courtesy of Willy Barton, via Shutterstock