As its dramatic debt is revealed, can White Ribbon survive?

The financial problems which now beset White Ribbon Australia were already in place well before the appointment of controversial CEO Tracy McLeod Howe, who lasted only three months in the job after a series of missteps.

'If your reputation is under attack, it's hard to get people to donate.'
‘If your reputation is under attack, it’s hard to get people to donate.’Credit:Alex Ellnghausen

The charity, which aims to highlight the role men can play to stop violence against women, is now in the red to the tune of $840,000 in a dramatic turnaround of its fortunes.

There are three key problems for the stability of White Ribbon:

  1. Revolving chief executives – Libby Davies who left last July after seven years in the top job, McLeod Howe who left in November and now acting CEO Delia Donovan.
  2. Three chairs of the board in the past 12 months – Nick Cowdrey who made misogynist remarks about Keli Lane, who was convicted of the murder of her baby Tegan; Ian Carter and now John Rosewarne); and
  3. A number of seemingly permanent board members who have overseen all the decisions which led to this catastrophic financial result.

The big question: how do we know which charities to support?

But here’s White Ribbon’s biggest problem. It’s all about money and reputation – and if your reputation is under attack, it’s hard to get people to donate.

The biggest increase in spending for the year ending June 2018 was the cost of employee expenses, which grew to nearly $4 million against a total revenue of just over $6 million, an increase of nearly 40 per cent on the previous year. Employee expenses represent nearly two-thirds of the total revenue. The cost of staff is always going to be big for an organisation whose work centres around advocacy and campaigning. But one specialist in the accountability of charities says in this case, the proportion is far too big and the increase in staff costs has led to the financial setback.

Western Sydney University’s Ushi Ghoorah, who specialises in financial disclosures and accountability of non-profit organisations, says White Ribbon’s annual report reveals troubling figures – the total of administration and employee costs accounts for 96 per cent of the charity’s total reported revenue.

“Their main purpose should be to increase positive social outcomes and public understanding of violence against women, not to pay employees,” she said.

Admin and employee costs accounts for 96 per cent of the charity’s total reported revenue.

The financial crisis has forced White Ribbon to undertake a complete restructure. Since June 2018, the workforce has been reduced through 10 redundancies and some natural attrition, from 47 to 32 (four of those remaining are on short-term contracts). A small number of redundancies were completed before the June 30 cutoff for the annual report. The rest took place in January this year.

A spokesperson for White Ribbon said these cuts would not “reflect the viability and the integrity of the contribution that White Ribbon’s programs are making in our community”.

The restructure has also focussed on other areas of cost-cutting because revenue at the charity is under pressure after negative publicity. This restructure will include a focus on a community-led campaign. Those within and outside the organisation agree that the chief challenge will be to rebuild trust with the community after damage to White Ribbon’s reputation over the past three years.

In 2015, psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed, a White Ribbon ambassador, excused male violence against women because of “male disempowerment”. White Ribbon did not respond promptly for calls to stand down Ahmed.
In 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Lisa Visentin revealed a plan by the men’s organisation to accept money from a publican if the authorities let him install more poker machines in his venue. It was only after inquiries from the Herald that White Ribbon changed its mind about accepting the money despite gambling being a contributing factor to violence against women.

The controversies clearly impacted the revenue.

It has also been criticised for its continuing relationship with the NRL. Last year, Buzzfeed’s Gina Rushton revealed that White Ribbon’s then chief executive Tracy McLeod Howe removed the organisation’s support of reproductive rights from its website because “we are agnostic until our stakeholders tell us it is important to most of them”. 

Although that support was reinstated, the incident was seen as key to the charity’s decision to part ways with McLeod Howe just a month later. She was replaced by acting CEO Delia Donovan, who is still acting in the role.

Those controversies clearly impacted revenue. According to the annual report, revenue was steady from 2017 to 2018 but the proportion of income from donations, merchandise and community funding has fallen by 17 per cent. That was not the only problem.
Payments to suppliers and employees grew by more than 40 per cent to more than $7 million for the year ending June 2018, compared to just under $5 million for the year ending June 2017. Ushi Ghoorah also notes that the charity was forced to borrow more than $250,000.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney who researches family violence.