Economics and Justin Bieber: Two very different topics that have recently got me thinking about saying sorry.

I’m a big fan of Freakonomics, “the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything” and would recommend a listen. A few months ago, an episode about how best to optimise an apology caught my attention. It looked at the way countless public figures throughout the years have come out and said sorry for a misdemeanour of some kind.

Then there’s Justin Bieber, singing about his infidelities and how to make amends for them in the embarrassingly catchy song Sorry. I admit this may give away my questionable taste in music.

The more I thought about the art of the apology, the more I realised its relevance for the charity sector. As charities are increasingly put under public scrutiny it feels even more important than ever for the sector to get an apology right.

When a big company blunders, the Chief Executive usually turns up on the news in a suit, says a few muted words of apology. Sales are affected for a bit, but a few months later consumers start shopping back at the place they vowed never to go to again. Normal service resumes. But for the charity sector, effects can be devastating. A significant number of cancelled direct debits can mean long-term income is hugely affected.

We only need to look at Oxfam as an example of this. After the safeguarding scandal, it announced that the charity was seeking to make savings of £16m and would most likely be making 100 redundancies.

And it’s not just the big high-profile stories that the sector needs to think about. The Fundraising Regulator received more than 1,100 complaints across 2017/18, 20% up from the year before, not to mention those that supporter care teams respond to daily.

Of course, at times, the charity sector has had to bear the brunt of negative press that may not be justified. The Mail on Sunday this weekend wrote a story criticising charity running costs, and also included the inevitable slamming of certain charity Chief Executive salaries. Even with culpability at question, the sector is often driven into showing remorse.

We know this is because the charity and donor relationship is heavily reliant on trust. Once that’s broken it can be hard to fix. There’s a role that apologies can play in helping to restore some of this trust, but it’s not just about saying sorry; how you do it is crucial. So with a little help from my friend Justin Bieber and his lyrics, here are the key principles that the sector should consider:

  1. Is it too late now to say sorry?
    Apologise quickly and sincerely. It’s important not to keep your donors waiting; they’ll think you don’t care about them or their concerns. And the longer you leave it, the more the story or situation can escalate. It’s far better to face the issue head on rather than hoping it will go away. If you’ve upset supporters in some way, you should be genuinely humbled by this; and your apology should come from the heart too.

  2. I’ll take every piece of the blame if you want me to
    The fault at hand may not have necessarily be yours, but if you’re representing your organisation you have responsibility to take the blame head on. Whether you’re the Chief Executive or the signatory if an apology letter, you must shoulder the damage as best as possible. Trying to deflect blame onto others can be seen as weakness and gives the impression that your organisation isn’t unified.


  3. I just need one more shot at forgiveness
    The Freakonomics episode talked about the ‘commitment apology’, a commitment to learn from what happened and do better in the future. This can be particularly impactful and gives you another chance to set things right. As a charity it’s so important to stick to this- otherwise what’s to stop your donors getting fed up in 6 months time when nothing’s changed?

The sector should always do its best to stop issues arising in the first place- we shouldn’t have the need to constantly apologise because we should have integrity and pride in everything we do. But whatever stories or challenges the sector will face in 2019, with the wise words of Justin Bieber ringing in our ears maybe we can make it through the other side.