Why is Asda failing customers on charity collections? Part Three

  1. This is part three of a four-part investigation into questionable charity collections at an Asda store in Manchester. Here I describe my experience with the charity Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club (registered charity number: 504371). It is a disability sports club, as the name suggests.
  2. The charity’s fundraising is frequent and highly organised, yet there is insufficient public information about Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club and its activities. It no longer has a website. Finding reliable information about this opaque charity is a challenge. What information there is, is seriously out of date, incomplete and confusing. The public contact was unresponsive at first and then tried to fob me off, before deciding to answer legitimate questions. Yet most of her answers were unsatisfactory. Finally, the charity refused to disclose electronic copies of its two letters that had been on a notice board for shoppers at the store in Manchester July 2014. Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club is not sufficiently open, transparent and accountable to the public.
  3. On the evening of 29 July 2014, I saw two letters from the charity on a notice board for shoppers at the Asda store in Longsight, Manchester. These were letters to the store reporting amounts collected there. One dated 5 June 2014 stated that £411.18 had been raised for the charity’s “Help Our Athletes” fund. While the other dated 30 June 2014 recorded a total of £1701.54 for its “Grassroots Development” fund. More about the letters at the end.
  4. I was unaware of Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club before seeing the letters. But I was straightaway seriously concerned for three reasons after checking the charity for the first time on the Charity Commission public register. First, the charity was and still is not up to date with its annual reporting requirements. Second, there was and still is no email address for the named public contact. Third, the charity’s website, oldhamowls.org.uk, listed on the register didn’t and still doesn’t exist.
  5. I became even more concerned as I started to encounter by chance people collecting money in its name at Asda Longsight. The first time was on the evening of 10 September 2014 when I saw a lone female collector in a red bib. She had a display board with a cartoon of a man in a wheelchair and the following text: “Disabled sports; please help; Owls; registered charity; mobile 07971 076 290”.
  6. Her display board raised three questions about the fundraising. First, the information there was vague: it was unclear that the collection was for a disability sports club and didn’t use the full name of the charity. Second, the assertion that the collection is for a registered charity is useless: the public need to know the registration number so that they can actually check it [the number]. Third, the telephone number was a mobile.
  7. The Charity Commission explicitly warns the public not to donate to collections where fundraising materials only bear a mobile number – see the fourth of nine checks the commission recommends in the London-wide safer giving campaign: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/commission-backs-london-wide-safer-giving-campaign. More about the mobile number later.
  8. Two days later I saw the same female collector at the store. This time I spoke to her, asking for the registered charity number. She pointed to the number on the collection pot. But the very small font meant it wasn’t easily visible. I wouldn’t have seen the number unless she’d directed me.
  9. I then saw the charity’s collectors at the store on three occasions in December 2014: 11th, 14th, 30th. Each time another display board was used. Although the registration number was now shown, the charity name in any form wasn’t. It said: “Disabled athletes; support the Paralympics”. There was an email address: helpourathletes@sky.com. Then it gave the same mobile number as before, but for the “Development fund organisers”. So again no landline number and no website.
  10. Searching online for the address helpourathletes@sky.com produces no hits, which is suspicious. Further, it was unclear why the address was for a “development” fund when it would seem appropriate for the charity’s alleged “Help Our Athletes” fund.
  11. On 14 December 2014, I was particularly struck by how organised the fundraising was. There was a team of collectors in-store that day, male and female, some in wheelchairs. All had red bibs like the woman in September. I couldn’t understand why the charity’s entry on the Charity Commission public register was so worryingly out of date and incomplete, given the level and organisation of fundraising I experienced randomly at just one store over a few months.
  12. Why exactly did the charity’s website listed on the register not exist? The registration of the domain name, oldhamowls.org.uk, had last been updated 10 April 2014, to expire 14 May 2016 (source: WHOIS records). So where was the website?
  13. Searching online I found a Facebook page for “Oldham – Tameside Owls Disability Sports Club”: https://www.facebook.com/TamesideOwls. There was no indication that this was a charity: it wasn’t described as such and there was no registration number. But there was an email address, if no name: neeliered@yahoo.co.uk.
  14. I then visited the British Wheelchair Basketball website to see if I could find out about the charity that way: gbwba.org.uk. Using my location as Oldham, the club finder returned Tameside Owls in Stalybridge as the nearest club. (Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club isn’t on the club finder.) The club entry showed a mobile number only, a different one to that I’d encountered in the fundraising. The website of Tameside Owls was listed as www.theowls.org.uk. There was no mention of charity status or reference to the Facebook page. Finally, the email address for the club was also neeliered@yahoo.co.uk – but again the name of the public contact wasn’t disclosed.
  15. The Tameside Owls website, theowls.org.uk, listed on the British Wheelchair Basketball website didn’t exist either. In fact, the domain name, theowls.org.uk, hasn’t been registered (source: WHOIS records). Registration hadn’t been renewed at expiry 25 February 2013.
  16. Nicky Evans, membership officer at British Wheelchair Basketball, told me in an email that the public contact for the club was Eileen Lloyd. So the public contact for Tameside Owls was also that for Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club, since Ms Lloyd is listed as such on the Charity Commission public register – but without an email address. I finally had her email address.
  17. On 16 December 2014, I wrote to Ms Lloyd asking the following five questions. First, why is your charity not up to date with its annual reporting requirements? Second, why is Mr Zbigniew Micek still listed as a trustee on the Charity Commission public register, when he died in November 2011? Third, the charity website, oldhamowls.org.uk, listed on the register doesn’t seem to exist. Why not? Fourth, what is the exact relationship between the Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club and Tameside Owls, the wheelchair basketball club? Fifth, the Tameside Owls website, www.theowls.org.uk, listed on the British Wheelchair Basketball website doesn’t seem to exist. Why not?
  18. Having heard nothing, I sent another message 23 December 2014. But again to no avail. I therefore tried again 30 December 2014, instead using the address on the display board in the store, helpourathletes@sky.com. This time I got a same-day response – from Brian Brewis, who said that he was the fundraising organiser. The next day Mr Brewis added that he had no “dealings with the running and organising of the club”, so couldn’t answer my five questions about the charity.
  19. On 1 January 2015, I heard from Ms Lloyd: “I understand your concerns regarding the charity but can assure you that the Charity Commission are aware of the unfortunate circumstances that have befallen the club and have accepted our situation. Trustees are in the process of being updated as is the club website and accounts. As the Charity Commission are being kept informed of our situation and have accepted our circumstances there is nothing for me to report to you.” In my 4 January 2015 response I said she hadn’t actually answered any of the five questions, adding that I was astonished. Why wasn’t her charity happy to answer questions from the public?
  20. Now I return to the mobile number. In his messages fundraising organiser Mr Brewis disclosed his mobile number without prompting, and it was the same as that on the display boards for the in-store collections. Yet his mobile number appeared as the club number on the authoritative Deloitte Parasport website at the same time. Deloitte Parasport is run by the British Paralympic Association (BPA) with support from the professional services firm Deloitte. Here is the listing there for “Oldham Owls Sports Club” (note: no “Disabled”) at 6 January 2015: freezepage.com/1420556058ILVOUUQZJE. Note too that another email address for the club appears there, owls@dsl.pipex.com, adding to the confusion. But, as you can see, there wasn’t much about the club in its entry on Deloitte Parasport. No address or name of public contact, for example. Also, again it showed the non-existent www.oldhamowls.org.uk as club website. Deloitte Parasport told me in an email that the club had registered with it 3 October 2013.
  21. On 13 January 2015, I asked Mr Brewis to explain why his mobile number was shown as the club number on Deloitte Parasport if, as he claimed, he organised fundraising only. Mr Brewis said that he was unaware that his number appeared there for that purpose and didn’t know why it did. The club had told him that it had “no idea” either, he added.
  22. Deloitte Parasport made it clear to me that clubs are responsible for maintaining their own listings on its directory. Although the club has now amended its listing, it still doesn’t provide an address.
  23. On 22 January 2015, I heard again from Ms Lloyd, but this time she wanted to answer the five questions in my first message to the charity (16 December 2014). She now said that she’d been “in hospital” when first replying. Yet most of her answers were unsatisfactory.
  24. The charity was not up to date with its annual reporting requirements because three committee members had recently died after “terminal illnesses”. The three were: Mr Zbigniew Micek, treasurer; Mr David Foden, chairman; Mr Stuart Harrison, chairman. The three deaths had “put undue pressure and responsibility on the remaining committee members”.
  25. I already knew that Mr Micek had died November 2011, as his date of death is on the public record in local newspapers: I’d mentioned it in my first message to the charity. So I asked Ms Lloyd when the other two had died, only because she’d explicitly referred in her answer to these three and their deaths. Mr Foden apparently died April 2013, followed by Mr Harrison May 2014.
  26. Although two of the three, Mr Micek and Mr Harrison, are listed as trustees on the Charity Commission public register, there are six other trustees, including Ms Lloyd. The Charity Commission states that all trustees are collectively responsible for filing a charity’s annual return and accounts, even if the task is given to one person such as the treasurer. (http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2015/jan/26/tips-submitting-charity-annual-accounts) Further, it’s not as if the charity’s documents are overdue by only a few days. At 11 March 2015 its accounts for 30 September 2011 are 954 days overdue, while its annual return for 30 September 2009 is 1685 days overdue.
  27. Failure to file accounts and annual returns on time is a serious issue. It’s actually a criminal offence. Filing on time is an important way charities maintain transparency and remain accountable to the public. Not filing on time “amounts to mismanagement and/or misconduct in the administration of a charity and is often linked with poor governance issues”, says the Charity Commission. (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/regulator-urges-charities-with-january-deadline-to-file-on-time-and-online)
  28. That all trustees are collectively responsible for filing a charity’s annual return and accounts means that Ms Lloyd’s explanation for why Mr Micek is still listed as a trustee on the Charity Commission public register, when he died in November 2011, is not credible. She told me that removal of Mr Micek’s name as a trustee had been the responsibility of now also deceased trustee Mr Harrison.
  29. Mr Harrison had also apparently been responsible for maintaining the two non-existent websites, oldhamowls.org.uk and www.theowls.org.uk. Remember Mr Harrison died May 2014, according to Ms Lloyd. But when the website www.oldhamowls.org.uk did exist, it was very out of date, I have discovered.
  30. So at 22 October 2012 the website oldhamowls.org.uk existed, according to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20121022153751/http://www.oldhamowls.org.uk/. But at 7 January 2013, the next time the Internet Archive Wayback Machine saved the site, it no longer existed and didn’t subsequently. Although the website existed at 22 October 2012, it seems to have been very out of date then: the homepage shows that it was “last modified” 19 March 2007. Similarly, the “News” page, most recently saved at 12 January 2012 on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, reports that it was “last modified” 28 February 2007: https://web.archive.org/web/20120112223212/http://www.oldhamowls.org.uk/news.htm. (That page describes a club event that took place 16 February 2007.)
  31. There are many issues with the website at 22 October 2012, apart from it being so out of date. The “Fundraising” page, for example, most recently saved at 25 January 2012, has nothing on it – about fundraising or anything else. But the page does show that it was “last modified” 14 February 2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20120125121606/http://www.oldhamowls.org.uk/fund.htm. In short, there are serious questions about the charity’s website, both when it existed and now that it doesn’t. That Mr Harrison apparently died May 2014 fails to address these.
  32. A final point on the two non-existent websites: Ms Lloyd said nothing about the Facebook page that I’d found.
  33. Yet Ms Lloyd did now say something about the exact relationship between the Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club and Tameside Owls: “The club still plays under the name of Oldham Owls but we use the name Tameside Owls to distinguish between European and National League Competitions.”
  34. It is important to note that Ms Lloyd now invited me to visit one of the club’s training sessions and to meet the committee in person. Acknowledging that this was an important offer, I said that I didn’t think it would be necessary.
  35. On 9 February 2015, I had one final request for the charity and it concerned the two letters I saw last July on that notice board at Asda Longsight. I asked Ms Lloyd to send electronic copies.
  36. The letters were suspicious for a number of reasons, not least because searching online for either of the fund names there, “Help Our Athletes” and “Grassroots Development”, with “Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club” produces no hits. Another concern was that they named high-profile Paralympic athletes from sports other than wheelchair basketball, stating that these individuals were involved with and/or endorsed Oldham Owls Disabled Sports Club. The letters appeared amateurish and unconvincing, I remember.
  37. In her reply a week later (16 February 2015), Ms Lloyd said that the committee meeting 18 February 2015 would consider my request for the documents. She “will then be in a position to respond”. But to date I have heard nothing.
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