On the tube, I started flicking through the Metro, and I noticed an Oxfam advert on the front page. “Donate to Oxfam this February and the nice people at PayPal will pay out running costs. So 100 per cent of your money goes directly to fighting poverty.”

I checked this later online while waiting to get my hair cut, as you do these days, and PayPal were indeed covering Oxfam’s running costs, that’s 19p per £1 (and for what it’s worth, they are also actually quite nice at PayPal, I spent a weekend at their offices a while back).

Interestingly, Oxfam says that its report suggests “65 per cent admit they have been put off supporting charities because of these costs” and that “there is also a widespread misconception about the amount of money that is allocated to essential running costs, with most people believing it is more than three times the actual figure spent”.

This is something I have been saying for a long time now, those who were at the launch of my fundraising website in 2010 will know that. Nevertheless, the point of me writing this is not to say, “I told you so”. After all, many others had the same thought.

The interesting element of this is that Oxfam claim the public believe their running costs to be as much as three times the actual costs. This is staggering and far beyond what I had expected, despite deciding to dedicate years to the development of a website designed to tackle this misconception.

So this prompts the question, why do Oxfam need to temporarily reduce their running costs to 0 per cent to win the public over? Surely they could simply state that their running costs are 19 per cent and this would be enough to cause their donors to become overwhelmed with surprise, and to begin desperately clambering for their credit card? It seems an unlikely possibility, but why?

If you expected your bill at a restaurant to be about £60 and it turned out to be only £19, you’d be happy, surely? So, it seems that there is something different in the public psyche when comes to charities. We can assume that many people will remain put off giving to charity even after they discover the truth about running costs. If true, this is quite worrying and seems to have only one explanation – the public are unwilling to accept the reality of running a charity.

The reality of running a charity

This is of course of no surprise, after all we work hard for our income and when we decide to give it away, we do so for altruistic and ideological reasons. We want to see our money make a difference and charities like Oxfam have spent decades showing us the impact our generosity can have on the world; we’ve seen it all, through countless fundraising appeals. Well, not quite all: we haven’t seen the office workers who file the paperwork, the receptionists, the cleaners or the man who delivers the doughnuts on Friday afternoon to boost morale. But these things represent 19 per cent of our donation, so why not?

With this in mind is it any surprise that we are too ideological when it comes to donating to charity? We aren’t told the truth about giving; we are told what we want to hear, what will make us give. However, the truth is actually far more beautiful and we need to be receptive to it.

The supposedly ‘uninspiring’ elements of running a charity that the adverts omit are quite the opposite; they are what make it all possible, they are in fact essential if we are to have any chance of tackling the issues we face on a long-term basis. If you want to give to a charity that has no running costs then just give your money to people on the street, but don’t expect to resolve any real problems.

The thing to take away from this seems to be that the truth about charity running costs needs to be shared and that we need to educate the public about the realities of running a charity. I have no doubt this can achieved in ways just as inspiring as the traditional appeals; there is always something undoubtedly inspiring about the truth.

(This article was first written for CivilSociety.co.uk on 07/02/11)