An honest response by Penny Appeal to 5Pillars’ misleading journalism

About the author

aamer profilesAamer Naeem is the CEO of Penny Appeal. You can email him at aamer.naeem@pennyappeal.org or call on 03000 11 11 11.


 

5Pillars have invited me to respond to the article written on Thursday 14th January 2016. I’m not a journalist, nor an author, so can only really respond without the sensationalism that often accompanies such articles, but share here responses to accusations both directly raised or implied.

Please excuse the length, I perhaps should have gotten a journalist to condense it for me, but wanted it to be my personal words. I start with some personal reflections on the impact of such “well intentioned” but ultimately damaging actions, move on to addressing the direct points about Penny Appeal’s accounts, explain a few related points in further detail and then address some of the wider questions that have been raised on the back of the article.

I wouldn’t usually write a response to articles or Facebook posts of this nature for two reasons. Firstly, if I did, I would likely be full-time on this type stuff alone. I’m sure readers, whether donors or not, would appreciate that this would not be the best use of my time or the time of the very hard-working team we have at Penny Appeal. Secondly, because the Court of Public Opinion is not a Just one. It relies on reputation shaming, sensationalisation and a crowd mentality.

These things are often served better by story tellers as opposed to fact reporters. Despite their flaws, auditors, regulators, courts and jurists are our modern day agents for judgment and accountability and, Alhamdulillah, our work is commended and ratified by them.

Inconvenience caused

Before proceeding, I would urge readers to reflect on the above two points, but in particular the former for a while. This Juma was actually a day where I had planned:

1. To hear the news that we finally got partners who can get into Madaya, Syria, to deliver vital aid and then coordinate the support we are providing to the people there.

2. Have lunch with my wife and pray Juma (as it was technically a day off, which anyone in our sector will tell you is always merely a technicality anyway).

3. I was to attend a meeting of the Muslim Charities Forum at 2pm in Manchester to coordinate the UK emergency response of Muslim charities given the recent floods and expected snowfall this weekend.

4. Pick up the kids

penny appeal 15. Attend an event at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in the evening to support the launch of their new exhibition showcasing the positive contribution of Muslims to the UK in history.

6. Business as usual and business as unusual.

So the knock-on effect of me, and key members of the team, responding to both this and all the negativity it generated was:

1. The good news that we got into Madaya eventually was received but we were distracted from what should have then been the focus for the day for many. A skeleton team assisted by staff IN PAKISTAN did what they could.

2. I was unable to attend the MCF meeting. As one of the few Muslim charities with a dedicated resource for UK domestic work and who were on the ground in Cumbria as well as based in Yorkshire – both heavily effected locations – were unable to share insights and contacts at a time where, I hope readers will agree, the Muslim community response was commendable and the knowledge share and capture would have been invaluable.

3. The BMHC event was not attended, in fact I am writing this article in the car outside the event.

4. Had to get a friend to pick up the kids, stood up my wife, but at least I got to Juma (albeit could not really tell you what the khutbah was about).

5. Let down both our Gaza office and Gambia office who needed emergency communication with me regarding emerging issues as well as letting the EDL loose on our Facebook posts, something that is regularly checked (and a daily occurrence) but due to the onslaught from our own, kept our team busy allowing further vulgar and racist attacks to remain unblocked for most of the day.

With power comes responsibility

I start with this because, as I said to Roshan, editor at 5Pillars, on the phone before he published the article, with great power comes great responsibility.

We must take responsibility, if not here, then ultimately one day, for what we put out there. An article is easy for a journalist to write, but a responsible one a lot harder to. Roshan was the ONLY person outside of the organisation and its agents to have sight of our 2015 accounts, however he chose intentionally not to use the audited and current information, as it did not support the sensational headline.

I spent considerable amount of time on the phone (a call which according to Dilly Hussain at 5Pillars was recorded without me being informed, I’m not sure of journalistic or communication law, but Islamically questionnable I’m sure, not that I said anything to hide of course) explaining many of the very questions readers, commentators and the public are asking, but most of which were omitted. A full explanation for what he was seeing, its causes and why it is not a fair representation of realities. Most of what I said fell on deaf ears as it was clear that the story was already written and was going to be published whether it was a story or not.

The repercussions: an impact on the work in Madaya, Gaza, Gambia and possibly Pakistan. An impact on the relationships and knowledge capture and sharing within the MCF, especially in the area of positive Muslim stories in the UK, letting down peers and colleagues doing great work, letting down the family, allowing the EDL free reign for a while on our social media platform and two sore thumbs, given I am writing this on my phone in the car (and that’s just me – multiply the effect throughout the rest of the organisation).

I’ve spent some time on a personal opener because I feel I may as well take the opportunity to remind myself and the readers that misguided actions, despite assumed well meaning intentions, can have a real impact on the world around you.

We must all take responsibility for every action and leadership requires you to consider the consequences of that action too. We all pray that we benefit from the positive effects of Sadaqah Jaaria, but we need to understand that it works both ways, positively and negatively. May Allah (swt) be our Guide always Insha’Allah.

Having been given the platform to respond, I pray our friends at 5Pillars allow me to make another wider point before getting to specifics about the article.

As a community right now we are being attacked from many directions. As learned people in this area remind us “now is the time for us to be defending the house, not cleaning the house.” We need to use our limited resources in the best possible way to bring our community together and showcase a positive image of Islam and Muslims – not divide us and showcase division and hate within the community.

We have the option of narratives which are positive or negative, responsible or irresponsible, quick or considered, easy or well informed. We have plenty of Daily Mail and Telegraph types out there who are willing and able to attack us, let’s use our resources more positively Insha’Allah.

So on to specifics of the article:

1. The article itself:

A member of the team forwarded me a message from Roshan saying he was publishing the article at 5pm and if I wished to respond to some very specific questions, that I should reply.

This was merely 25 minutes before the deadline. A dear friend of mine recently had the unfortunate experience of a mainstream channel doing an equally unfair programme which included him. The journalists in question however had given him days of notice of the programme so he was in a position to respond should he wish to.

I appreciate that 5Pillars have given me the right of reply here, however given the reality of damage to a wide range of people, direct or indirect, as well as to the sector as a whole, I feel the responsible and professional approach would be to give enough notice that this or other responses can be prepared so people are not left speculating in the interim and undue damage caused which is as detrimental to the authors as much as the targets, sector and community at large.

If the irresponsible non-Muslim press allow this, I would urge our Muslim media to showcase greater ethics in behaviour.

2. A real representation of the 2014 accounts:

Without the attention-grabbing, misleading and distorted headlines, the accounts are explained very well in the infographic sent to 5Pillars which appears in the middle of the original article. The charity’s income on the accounts for the year was £2.5 million and from that amount, only £1.86 million was received from donations from the public.

So one of the questions I answered to Roshan on the phone and requested he explain to his readers (as it is unfair not to) was: Where did the rest of the income come from?

£254,344 was received from HMRC for Gift Aid for use for administration.

£387,553 was never actually received!

This amount is what is known as “Donated Services.” We reported this as it is a requirement of the Charity SORP to do so. Given the issues this has caused us, I can see why many charities try not to, as understanding these things can be difficult for the public. Given it did not support the sensational headline, I unfortunately also see why the explanation of this, given to Roshan, was omitted from the article despite my spending considerable time explaining it.

These are quantifiable voluntary services that have been provided to the charity. So, for example, we paid NO RENT in that period as the space was donated, or we paid nothing for our database management system or social media management as these were provided free of charge to the charity.

However, because their values were quantifiable, the best practice was to (unfortunately) add it to our income and then (even more unfortunately) add it to our direct expenses. The implication of this is that this looks like that value of income was wholly re-spent on administering our services – 100% expenses! The knock-on effect, given the amount relative to our actual income, was to significantly increase what looked like our expenses and percentages.

As such, if you strip away the above, and look at just donations, we spent:

£666,785 before the end of April and £810,872 was retained in charitable reserves (see later), ie a total of £1,477,657.

This then leads to the question: Why so much has been retained for future use?

penny appeal 2We intentionally held what seems like a large proportion in the charity reserves simply because we were at the start of a major construction programme in The Gambia. Ten orphan homes, a Masjid and an administration block.

Anyone who knows anything about building and contractors will be able to tell you that you shouldn’t give all the money up front, you should release it at pre-defined milestones and you should also be careful not to run out of money as if contractors leave your site, getting them back is a nightmare. This was a £750,000 project.

Every Ramadan we also have our annual Feed Our World Programme. In Ramadan 2014 we expanded to 30 countries and fed 1 million meals. A significant logistical undertaking which also required pre-Ramadan cash flow.

This simple explanation was given to Roshan but perhaps is a little too boring for an article requiring the response he wanted.

So, what have I learned from 5Pillars? It is that I should irresponsibly empty the bank account just before the end of the accounting year (a very arbitrary date) if I wish to avoid falling foul of being misrepresented. It does not matter if it jeopardises the well-being of the needy or the security of the funds, as it looks good and, for this type media, this is what matters.

It is not that I expect anyone to necessarily know the reason behind any retentions, it is more that if I have explained it and it is intentionally ignored and omitted because it does not support the desired story or narrative that will lead to a “guilty by misled public opinion,” then this surely cannot be fair, just or responsible for a Muslim media outlet.

Our first priority wasn’t how our accounts will look to the public, it was about implementing projects on the ground in the best way possible. That is actually the mandate given to us by our donors surely.

4. A little more on those Donated Services:

Although explained fully above in terms of their nature, I need to take this opportunity to highlight where those services came from. These services, a further approximate £200,000 of which were received in the following year, were received from Adeem Younis, the chair of trustees at the charity.

Not only has he dedicated a significant amount of time as a volunteer to the charity, he has over these two years donated over £500,000 of, independently audited, services to the charity. It is undoubtedly this contribution and the leveraging of the knowledge from the UK’s most active Muslim website that has led to the success of one of the UK’s fastest growing Muslim charities.

So instead of commending and celebrating the support, 5Pillars chooses to target and demonise him. The strategic use of his resources has meant a significant multiplication of the contribution which should be recognised.

The charity recently featured prominently on the BBC, Sky News and ITV News for the work it did in the recent UK floods and again for the aid to help refugees arriving on the shores of Greece, however our own media takes a different approach and chooses to damage us. When will we begin to realise that we will have to answer for all the consequences of what we are doing to our own Ummah?

penny appeal 3Nowhere does anyone talk about the fact that we are the first Muslim International Development Agency to have three quarters of our trustees as women. Now that’s a great story!

Nowhere does it mention that we are the largest provider for orphan care in countries like The Gambia. Now that’s a great story!

Nowhere does it mention the representations we made to MPs and HMRC to both increase Gift Aid and protect against the challenge they made on withdrawing Gift Aid from Qurbani donations, something that would have had serious repercussions on the whole sector yet something Penny Appeal stood alone against. Now that’s a great story!

Nowhere does it mention the great work the many volunteers, workers and officers of the charity are doing. Not sensational, but definitely a story worth some air time surely!

Well if no-one from our own media is willing to do it, I will take this opportunity to. I salute the fact that this charity is led and governed in recognition of a majority of our community who have always been treated as a minority, I salute Adeem and would encourage him to, and I’m sure he will, continue to support worthwhile community projects, despite the thanklessness from parts of the very community he is helping – only Allah (swt) will judge insha’Allah.

I salute the most amazing team I have ever worked with, both officers of the charity and #TeamOrange volunteers. I salute the selfless donors who have believed in us, continue to support us and who I remain always accountable, available and humbled to. Most of all, I salute the people we serve in the most destitute places of the world. May Allah (swt) bless and protect them always. Ameen.

5. A little more about Gift Aid:

This is the tax that you have paid on your charitable donations. In essence, HMRC recognise that you have not directly benefitted from those funds so contribute the tax you would have paid on it to the charity.

However, because of how it is claimed, it doesn’t appear in our bank account straight away as we have to file claims to HMRC. Interestingly, following our most recent Gift Aid claim we were able to boast that our admin costs from the inception of the charity through to the end of that 2014 financial year had fully been covered by those Gift Aid claims made.

We even, at the time, produced a short animated video which I would encourage you to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3NnK6-2Dtk to explain more on this and how Gift Aid supports the work of the charity. Please do watch it as it shows how we have used Gift Aid claims to support our work and is also a nice reminder of all the work we do around the world.

6. What of 2014/15 accounts?

These have literally just been submitted to the Charity Commission and quite unexpectedly they have even updated their site, Alhamdulillah.

Heartbreakingly, I did send them to Roshan for him to reference them and what they say in the article, but again, because they did not support the sensational headline, he chose not to. Fortunately, they are now public record for all to see for themselves and we are not dependant on the editorial bias shown.

We will no doubt produce a similar infographic for you all to see in due course, but for those interested can see from the latest accounts that:

Total Income was : £8,973,229

Of which Gift Aid made up £1,023,710 and those (appreciated but unattractive for accounts) Donated Services made up £205,110

As such, we received £7,744,409 in actual donations from the public.

Of this, given the amount of Donated Services and Gift Aid, we only deducted £1,079,996 for expenses. This amounts to a mere 14% of deduction from the donations the public gave us.

Heartbreaking that Roshan was privy to this information before publishing the article but chose not to mention it.

7. Want to take a look at our work?

The orphan village in The Gambia will be complete this year and we always welcome donors and others to come and see the work we do in the country. We ask people to make their own travel arrangements and we facilitate the experience, where you get to see and be involved with a whole array of our projects, like the installation of water wells, construction of orphanages and mosques, along with seeing our orphan and Hifz orphan schemes in action.

In fact, this is exactly what Amir Khan did with Penny Appeal and it sowed the seeds of a solid and beautiful relationship with himself and his Amir Khan Foundation.

This was the same offer I made to Roshan when we spoke. This unfortunately got warped by one of the other directors of 5Pillars on social media, Dilly Hussain, who wrote that I had offered Roshan a “trip to Ghana” if he didn’t publish the article. To his credit, when I confronted Roshan on this he assured me that he would get Dilly to remove the post and explained it away as a “throwaway comment” he made to him which Dilly took seriously.

This again was particularly distressing for me. Firstly, that the conversation I had in good faith with Roshan was being misrepresented, even in a “throwaway’ manner.” I’m certain such conversation is classed as slander whether published, throw away, serious or otherwise.

Secondly, for Dilly to then make the accusation publicly on Facebook points to the trigger-happy irresponsible journalism that has gotten us here in the first place and distracted so many of us from more important and life-saving work.

He even claimed it was recorded, which had he actually taken the time to listen to before “reporting” the hearsay, would have at least led him to get the country right, even if he wished to falsely malign me.

8. Some other responses to the social media storm this has created:

Charity expenses: All legitimate charities have expenses. Most of the time, it is not spent on responding to irresponsible media articles. There are many charities claiming very “responsible” 100% policies.

I would ask any discerning reader to ask the question: Why don’t ANY mainstream charities do this. The answer is simple. There is a concept of “good aid” versus “poor aid.” It would be very cheap for any charity to merely collect your donations and effectively post them out to overseas locations. The problem with that however is that much of that money would actually then go to waste.

It could easily be claimed that 100% was sent, but it does not follow that 100% was spent on anything worthwhile.

In my 20 years in the sector, there have been so many stories of well-intentioned but poorly-informed charities literally having to dump aid into the sea because simple due diligence was not completed to ensure a port in a foreign country will accept the aid.

penny appeal 4I’ve heard of ambulances being bought and shipped overseas, which could not be maintained in the recipient locations and thus, once they broke down – ended up redundant and scrapped due to the absence of spare parts – again, a simple process of due diligence which may have cost something initially, would have saved tens of thousands.

I even know of cases when well-intentioned charities installed water wells in locations like Bangladesh or Nepal, but the ground water contained poisonous arsenic, so effectively damaging the health of anyone drinking the so called “safe water.” There’s cases where aid has been looted, and even misuse of funds where financial assistance was given to guardians of orphans, who used it to purchase mobile phones when the children in their care went to school hungry… and I could go on and on.

These are all very real scenarios, all of which can be prevented with appropriate controls, due diligence, monitoring and evaluation. But that costs money. I for one would much rather 80p in my pound goes towards real, life-changing aid than the whole pound getting “spent” but in a wasteful and ineffective way.

With that said, to give 5Pillars an exclusive, Penny Appeal has had a 100% Zakat policy in place for the last 2 years. We’ve not really advertised it and merely refer to it in our latest accounting annual report which has very limited readership. This policy extended only to Zakat donations which have a more “ownership of the needy” nature by definition. We did not want others to feel pressurised into doing the same and thus it has been low profile. We will ensure this message is communicated more rigorously from here on in however.

Trusting the process

My last thoughts are that laws are in place in the UK for a reason. Regulators are there for a reason. We are regulated and governed by numerous laws and bodies, including The Charity Commission, Companies House and the Fundraising Standards Board. We are then further scrutinised intensively by an external firm of auditors. You need to trust the process.

I have no will, want nor need to know, but I did notice that 5Pillars asks for your donations to support its work. As a private company, I wonder how much disclosure of your donated monies they have made in the past too.

Shockingly, some of those donations have been used to promote “paid for” Facebook posts to advertise the offending article. An article that was mere sensationalism and divisive to the community and damaging to the sector and community as a whole.

I’m not so sure this would have been the intention for use of those donating towards 5Pillars, but, as a private company, there is no need for disclosure, despite it being equally as “public money.” Please do not mistake this for a call for such a disclosure, to be honest I’m not interested, I’m merely highlighting the hypocrisy in the approach, not just in the transparency with donated funds but as much in the transparency of referencing “charity insiders” – I wonder if they would let us get away with equally vague and hidden sources.

I do hope that the same effort and resource, to be fair, is put into propagating this response by them. I would also respectfully request anyone who shared the original article, to share this response too in the interest of even-handedness.

5Pillars have made a promise with me to publish this article in full. Roshan also made a promise to me on the “recorded phone call” to correct a previous erroneous article too. That promise is still unfulfilled I’m afraid. As a parent, I teach my children that making a promise is not a compulsion but keeping one is Wajib. I have heard stories of companions who would, for that reason, not even make promises through fear of not keeping them. I pray 5Pillars keep this one at least.

If I’ve retained your attention to the end, I thank you for your time. I also thank the numerous messages of support we have received from the public and senior colleagues in the community. If you’d like to get in touch with messages of support, have any related questions or would like to visit and share a cup of tea to discuss our work then please email aamer.naeem@pennyappeal.org or call 03000 11 11 11.

We take our work, responsibility and relationships with you very seriously and would gladly make time for anyone, donor or otherwise, for this.

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