Many believe the damaged brand was doing more harm than good to the wider cause. (Flickr: White Ribbon Australia)
It’s rarely a cause for celebration when a charity closes before its mission has been fulfilled.
But in the case of anti-domestic violence charity White Ribbon, which has gone into liquidation, many believe it’d reached a turning point where the damaged brand was doing more harm than good to the wider cause.
So why are some toasting its demise? And what do we risk losing from its closure?
Road paved with good intentions
Let’s start with some empathy.
Forty-three people have lost their jobs (30 full time and 13 part-time).
Just like when a media masthead with CEOs/columnists you might disagree with loses impartial news reporters through cuts, you can find sympathy for those who wake up tomorrow unemployed.
Family violence support services:
They were, no doubt, as enthusiastically attached to the stated purpose of their charity as each of my colleagues were in the 12 years I spent in the non-proft sector.
White Ribbon’s purpose remains important: engaging men to make women’s safety a man’s issue too.
Despite legitimate complaints about the embattled charity, the wider picture here requires preventing the message that this purpose no longer matters. It’s essential.
Violence against women isn’t a women’s issue. It’s everyone’s issue. We risk ringfencing it unless we encourage men to step up, but — and this is crucial — step up in meaningful ways.
Not enough men are challenging the culture of violence against women in Australia.
I was the only male journalist accepted onto 2019’s Our Watch Fellowship program, administered by the Walkley Foundation.
Myself and 13 women completed the scholarship, devised to improve the media narrative on reporting violence against women. Of the 65 applicants, just five were men.
It suggests men don’t see this as their problem, or if they do, they’re not stepping up.
That means all men — especially the 77 per cent of men from our nation’s ruling party — and a meaningful way of stepping up: like better funding domestic violence shelters, for example.
As some on Twitter are saying: “Domestic violence will never be ended by good men wearing a white ribbon… It’ll be ended after we dismantle patriarchy.”
White Ribbon was a charity, then, with good intentions — but an often woeful delivery.
@FlickReynolds tweet: Domestic violence will never be ended by good men wearing a white ribbon their lapel.
Where it all went wrong
The charity’s credibility to comment on domestic violence issues was questioned after consistent poor judgement calls.
Last year, the day after Queensland decriminalised abortion, White Ribbon’s then new chief executive Tracy McLeod Howe (who has since left — rapid leadership staff turnover has been a problem) removed the organisation’s support for reproductive rights, saying it’d be “agnostic” on the issue — then backtracked.
@Rob Manwaring tweet: As a White Ribbon ambassador I strongly disagree with this decision.
But the damage was done. A charity purporting to protect women was seen as failing to protect them in a key area: their right to choose, and their right to be safe from reproductive coercion.
The charity in 2017 accepted a large donation from Fairfield Hotel, made on the proviso the pub succeeded in its bid to increase its poker machines.
This overlooked extensive research linking family violence to poker machines.
Every charity I’ve worked at had a strict fundraising policy, such as cancer charities not accepting money from the nicotine industry, for example. It seems White Ribbon needed to strengthen theirs.
A common complaint from within the domestic violence sector was that White Ribbon gulped money and resources from the most urgent space: underfunded frontline services.
Not just refuges, but practical services that keep endangered women safe: trauma centres, legal help and accommodation.
To raise this money, it embarked on bizarre fundraising campaigns such as Cheese for Change, which risked diminishing the graveness of the problem, prioritising money over any genuine cause connection.
It’s ironic, then, that financial mismanagement was the reason for it closing: it received $6 million in revenue, but spent $6.9 million in 2017-18.
White Ribbon was criticised for funding campaigns like Cheese for Change. (White Ribbon Australia)
Former CEO Tracy McLeod Howe yesterday reminded us that charities may be not for profit, but they’re also not for loss.
“This place was a financial mess for years before me,” she said. “Don’t spend more than you make.”
The ambassador problem
The charity’s selection process for recruiting ambassadors and board members clearly lacked rigour.
Although it obviously wasn’t responsible for everything an ambassador went on to say and do, it also wasn’t seen to act swiftly enough to call out rogues.
White Ribbon ambassadors were simply tasked with “raising awareness”. But this was done in some odd ways.
Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed wrote about the Australian of the Year Awards being “at risk of becoming dominated by radical feminists” after violence survivor Rosie Battie won for doing something as “radical” as campaigning against domestic violence.
White Ribbon didn’t sack him.
Eso from rap group Bliss n Eso was made an ambassador shortly after holding a fist to a Rhianna waxwork with the hashtags #smackmybitch #shelovesthewayithurts.
Politician ambassadors Luke Foley and John Elferink were actually sacked after, respectively, sexual harassment allegations and being “tempted to slap” a female MP.
Nicholas Cowdery resigned as the charity’s chair after comments in an ABC documentary that left viewers accusing him of slut-shaming Keli Lane.
Nicholas Cowdery resigned as the charity’s chair over comments he made about Keli Lane. (ABC News: Jack Fisher)
The male ambassador approach clearly wasn’t working out, but some say the charity had little to offer outside of this.
Others say that’s perhaps ungenerous, citing their schools program as an area of impact.
How should charities approach ending domestic violence?
Former NSW Minister Pru Goward yesterday wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that she “despaired” at the focus on funding “broad-based and, frankly, unproven programs to lift the respect Australian men have for women as a means of stopping domestic violence”, claiming that they’re too slow and only make a small difference.
Treating offenders as criminals is a better approach, she writes.
Was she referring to the $587,000 White Ribbon received from the Government, or charities like Our Watch, which use their funding to drive behaviour change?
Goward sets up a false binary here: it isn’t either/or. It’s both.
Violence against women is currently Australia’s biggest crime, health and social story — a crisis that calls for all hands to the deck.
Of course the criminal justice system needs to give better deterrents by treating perpetrators as serious criminals.
But the upcoming generation of boys needs to learn about valuing women so they’re not murdering their partners at a rate of one a week.
And that requires more than eating a cheese platter, donning a ribbon and signing a meaningless pledge.