Vigils and vigilance
It started in the days after the death of Princess Diana in the late summer of 1997. Piles of flowers, impromptu shrines with candles, cards and messages, heaped up at the gates of her London home, Kensington Palace, and in the Mall approaching Buckingham Palace. Saturation broadcasting and press coverage produced ever-increasing waves of emotion for a woman onto whom many others projected their own feelings without having known or met her in person. Although born into the English aristocracy and married to the heir to the throne, she was the “people’s Princess” in the words of then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Over the last week, something with an echo of those days has happened, following the discovery of the remains of a young woman, Sarah Everard, who had disappeared whilst walking to her home in Clapham in south London on the evening of Wednesday 3 March 2021.
Within a day of this grim discovery, a small group of women in London formed the idea of holding “A Vigil for All Women”. Under the name “Reclaim These Streets” (“RTS”), in the early evening of Wednesday 10 March they started to promote an invitation via social media, to “come to the bandstand on Clapham Common at 6pm on Saturday 13 March to reclaim these streets and our public spaces”
“Reclaim These Streets was a gathering of me and a group of friends yesterday evening realising that we needed something positive out of the experiences that we were all having, both locally and seeing what was happening on a national level” — Jessica Leigh, organiser, interviewed for the Evening Standard 11 March 2021
The idea of the vigil was popular, not only in London, and spread widely and rapidly. The nine organisers, two of whom were local councillors, discussed their plans for a safe and lawful vigil with the local authority and police officers. But during the afternoon of Thursday 11 March they were told by the Metropolitan Police that the vigil would not be lawful under the current coronavirus public health regulations, and that the organisers risked arrest and £10,000 fixed penalties. Four of the organisers (the judge described RTS as “an informal group seeking to channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness that they all share”) made an urgent application to the High Court against the Metropolitan Police the next day, Friday 12 March for interim declarations asserting a lawful right to protest as a reasonable excuse for an “outdoor gathering” which would otherwise be prohibited (SI 2020/1374 Sch 3A paragraph 4). The Metropolitan Police acknowledged that any universal policy prohibiting protest would be unlawful, but asserted that it did not have any such policy. The judge thought that there would be further discussion between the organisers and the police about the proposed vigil, and, having, as he said “clarified the application of the law . . . at this stage”, declined to make any declarations or other order (Judgment of Holgate J in Leigh and others v. MPC  EWHC 661 (Admin) 12 March 2021). Further discussions did take place during the evening of Friday 12 March but did not lead to any agreement on which the organisers felt they could proceed with the vigil, so early in the morning of Saturday 13 March they announced its cancellation. Despite this, many people, including, as it happens, the wife of Princess Diana’s son, the Duchess of Cambridge, alone and inconspicuously dressed, went to the Clapham bandstand and left flowers and messages on and around it and on the benches and trees surrounding it. After the sun set, the spontaneous gathering of people around the bandstand turned into a protest, culminating in widely-criticised interventions by the police, during which four people were arrested.
Cancellation of the vigil was an obvious disappointment for the organisers and many people who had hoped to attend. One organiser, Jamie Klingler, appearing on LBC radio on Saturday morning, explained the decision to “pivot online, let’s raise the money and make this the start of a movement and not the end of what’s happened”. Asked “what do you want, what’s the aim of you and your fellow Reclaim the Streetsters?” she said “Because it started four days ago, we haven’t done the real policy chats. We think it’s grounded in education and it’s grounded in respect and it’s getting listened to by the police, funnily enough and not being silenced. So it’s about making those dialogues a result in policy that changes things. It’s using all of the people that are talking now and galvanising it and getting it to make change, getting people on committees, getting people heard, getting people in front of more MPs, and really we’ve got a lot of ambition and we want to do it in Sarah’s name and all the women that haven’t been named”
Early in the morning of Saturday 13 March the organisers also set up a crowdfunding page on the JustGiving platform, and publicised it via social media. This was their appeal
The organisers had already successfully run a smaller crowdfunder for their legal costs on the CrowdJustice platform on the evening of Thursday 11 March, and met and exceeded their target of £30,000 within an hour, so had some basis for optimism of a generous response to this appeal. It rapidly met its target of £320,000, and within a few days had exceeded £500,000, a very impressive headline figure (far above the annual income and expenditure of many charities) and one which reflects both the grief and goodwill that widely reported tragic events often stimulate. Many contributors made it explicit that their donation was in memory of Sarah, others “for all women and all girls”.
It also became quickly apparent that the organisers had not launched this appeal with much knowledge of charity fundraising and administration. Less than two hours after it was first publicised, a barrister, Abimbola Johnson, raised some valid questions on Twitter.
These questions were echoed by others, in replies to Abimbola, and independently. Hers received no response from RTS.
Having initially said only that they would state which charities they intended to support “in due course”, followed by some general statements of intent and clarification of the original fundraiser text, in the early evening of Friday 19 March RTS announced that the management of the fund is to be taken over by Rosa, a charitable grant-making trust. Rosa is the only such trust which is dedicated to women’s charities, and makes grants to many grassroots organisations. The value of the RTS fund is about half again of what Rosa distributed in grants last year.
Rosa has been registered as a charity since 2008 and information about its governance and activities and its accounts are on the Charity Commission website
Making decisions about charitable grants, especially making decisions about grants out of a fund the size of £0.5M to small grassroots organisations needs time, attention and skill. In a grant-making trust, the decision-makers have to be able to satisfy the trustees that they have taken decisions fairly and in line with the trust’s policies. It would have been pointless for RTS to attempt to re-invent the wheel and itself seek to become a registered grant-making charity to duplicate the work Rosa is already doing.
This handover was the undoubtedly the right step for the organisers of RTS to take, and they are right to do so without delay, but there are still some lessons to be learned from experience. With less haste and more thought or guidance, the RTS organisers could have put this arrangement in place before launching their fundraising appeal, and retained wider confidence in it from the outset.
Transparency — purpose
In 2021, the word “women” is unhappily divisive, more in some places than in others, and perhaps most acutely so in the context of helping women who have been victims of violence, sexual assault and abuse. The organisers of RTS and many of their supporters promote the “inclusive” definition below, which they added a few days after originally launching the fundraiser.
Others feel strongly that their donations should only go to charities which provide support for women under the sex-specific exceptions in the Equality Act 2010. People who had made contributions to RTS’s fundraising for what they believed would be women’s charities in this sense felt misled and disappointed. The first response of an individual who then described herself as “organiser and comms” for RTS to reasonable questions to her about the administration of the fund, on Twitter during the evening of Saturday 13 March, was to immediately accuse some of those questioning her of “transphobia”, to swear at them, insult them as “literal scum”, and “bullies” and even threaten one person with reporting her to her employer. Yet this individual was permitted by the other organisers to appear and speak on behalf of RTS on BBC Breakfast the following morning, and to continue to hold herself out as “organiser and comms” for RTS for some days.
Divisive feelings were further exacerbated by a statement made by one of the original organisers, Henna Shah, when she announced her departure (for unexplained reasons) from RTS on Wednesday 18 March, referring to “womxn’s charities”. If this word means anything different from “women’s charities”, it is not what RTS told contributors it was fundraising for.
Another divisive question about the purpose of the fundraising was raised by Sisters Uncut. This is a feminist direct action organisation, as it describes itself. It was present at the Clapham bandstand on Saturday 13 March and handed out leaflets which included the words “Reclaim These Streets”, but it is entirely separate from, more aggressively activist than, and critical of RTS and its organisers. It and its supporters think that some of the money raised by RTS from its charitable crowdfunder should be used for paying penalties and legal costs for people arrested at the Clapham bandstand on Saturday 13 March.
RTS have already stated that they will not do so, and they are right. It was not something that they asked people to contribute money for, and payments for these purposes could never be charitable in English law anyway.
Jamie Klingler, the RTS organiser who spoke on LBC on the morning of 13 March recorded a podcast on 17 March where she also talked in general terms about both the fundraising and the future of RTS. It was very unclear from this discussion whether she was envisaging that RTS would itself seek to become a registered charity and whether it would then use any of the fundraising for its own activities rather than give it away to other charities.
RTS should have thought all these issues through, made them clear when they first published their fundraising page, and maintained consistent clarity. The public comments of their “organiser and comms” individual were indefensible and they should have distanced themselves from them immediately.
Fortunately, people who felt unhappy about having made donations on impulse as the lack of transparency of purpose became apparent were able to seek a refund from JustGiving so that they could donate directly to a charity of their choice instead.
Transparency — people and organisations
RTS used its logo and name on its crowdfunding page. It did not make it clear that not only was it not a registered charity, but that it had no legal structure at all, and was just a logo and a name. It did not even identify the nine individual organisers by name, or provide any information about them. People who are raising money from the public should be expected to at least make this clear. And, as in addition to the two councillors, several other of the organisers are politically active in south-east London, they should also have made it clear that RTS’s charitable fundraising would be kept entirely separate from any programme of political campaigning that RTS as a “movement” might pursue, because charities are restricted from involvement in political campaigning.
Crowdfunding is completely unregulated. Crowdfunding platforms do little, if any, due diligence on individuals setting up crowdfunding pages, and generally do not direct or rewrite any of the content on these pages. Once the funds raised are transferred by JustGiving into whichever bank account the individual(s) who set up the crowdfunding page direct, they belong outright to whoever has the mandate for that bank account, unless and until some other legal arrangement comes into existence. It is doubtful whether the wording of a crowdfunding appeal creates an enforceable trust, although it is certainly arguable here that there is a trust for women’s charitable causes, which, ultimately, could be enforced by the Attorney General representing the public interest in charity, and a scheme of distribution for it approved by the Charity Commissioners or the High Court.
Charities which are recognised as having charitable purposes in English law and are registered are regulated by the Charity Commission. Even without any active intervention from the Charity Commission, they are required to publish their constitutional and operating structure, their terms of reference for decision-making and their annual report and accounts — all of which entrench transparency and enable vigilance over their activities.
Two voluntary improvements which crowdfunding platforms could make for this sort of public appeal are (1) to insist that the full names of all organisers are published on the crowdfunding page (so that contributors can carry out bankruptcy or other searches on them), with an explanation of the legal constitution of any organisational name they use, and (2) to insist that the words “charity” or “charitable” are only used on their pages to describe organisations or purposes which are charitable in English law, easily demonstrable by proof of registration as a charity.
RTS’s original fundraising was inefficiently set up from the point of view of maximising the amount of each donation to go to charity. Because RTS is not itself a charity, and because it did not select a single charity for donations, JustGiving were unable to permit individual contributors to fundraising to apply for Gift Aid to enhance their gifts. This is a very valuable enhancement to charitable gifts made by UK taxpayers, and would add significantly to a fund of over £0.5M. RTS’s 19 March announcement states their intention to redirect their JustGiving page to Rosa, so that contributions via the platform can qualify for Gift Aid. As a Gift Aid declaration can cover gifts made in the previous four tax years, in principle, all eligible contributions to the fundraising should be eligible for Gift Aid.
Processing donations via a crowdfunding platform also involves paying a fee to the platform owner, which could be avoided by direct donation to a charity itself, either free-standing, or via a crowdfunding platform without an intermediary, as crowdfunding platforms generally have preferential terms of business for charity clients.
Direct donation also, importantly, enables charities to maintain contact with donors and seek to build a longer-term donor-beneficiary relationship with them.
Why it matters
Regulation and transparency of dealings with funds raised for charitable purposes is important, because it supports public confidence in giving to good causes. That confidence is eroded by doubt about the ability of organisers of a charitable crowdfunder to actually deliver on their promises, or by proposals such as those originally made here, which had obvious deficits of transparency and regulation.
This is the view of charity fundraiser, Heather Stanley
The women of Reclaim These Streets are not the first to organise impulsive fundraising and find that it is not as straightforward as it looks. Celeste Barber, a public-spirited Australian comedian launched a crowdfunding campaign following the catastrophic bush fires of 2019/2020. It was so successful that it raised the equivalent of £20M for her nominated beneficiary, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Donations Fund charity. The New South Wales Supreme Court (judgment in Re NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund  NSWSC 604) had to decide how the money should actually be spent, because many of the specific ideas suggested by contributors and by Celeste Barber herself were beyond the limits of the powers that the nominated charity had. In England, in the winter of 1951, a horrific bus crash in the dark killed 24 Royal Marines cadets in Chatham, in Kent, and injured several more. The mayors of the surrounding towns set up a memorial fund for specific expenses and for “worthy causes in memory of the boys”. It took almost a decade for the courts to decide that the proposed trust for “worthy causes” was irredeemably void and that the surplus contributions had to be returned to the original donors. There are other similar cases.
Somewhere over the last ten days, the original idea of a vigil, of a moment of respectful sorrow for the death of one young woman, in the neighbourhood where she lived, and where many other women live as she did, has been lost. As after Diana’s death, people have found a place for the flowers and candles, for the shared expression of emotion after a tragic event. Especially at the end of a long year of fear and isolation, a year of lockdown in which there have been a number of other terrible deaths of women which have lingered in people’s minds. The ornate Victorian bandstand lends itself to the masses of flowers, and the promenade of people circling around it with their children, their bicycles and their dogs, as in all London parks.
Perhaps the vision of the respectful moment was lost when the language changed from “vigil” to “protest” in the declarations the organisers asked the High Court to make. Or perhaps when the gathering at the bandstand turned to turmoil on Saturday night, and in other demonstrations outside Parliament that have followed debate over the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill this week. The New York Times was so convinced that “Reclaim These Streets” had become a novel social movement that it even prepared a lesson for high school students based on one of several articles it had published about it.
Whether it really is such a movement remains to be seen. It may be that the £0.5M fundraising is the most durable achievement of its existence
But it is hardly surprising that one of Sarah Everard’s university friends has said she feels discomfort about the way her death has been “hijacked” — taken up and used by various groups with agendas of their own.
Someone who is described as having been a private person in her lifetime is entitled to be remembered as a private person after her death. I hope that in the future Sarah Everard’s family and friends will at least draw some consolation from the rapid and generous scale of this fundraising, and some reassurance that it will be spent in a responsible way by competent decision-makers, and for the public benefit of many women in this country.
© Barbara Rich 2021 — Written and published to Medium 20 March 2021, updated to include questions to RTS first raised on 13 March 2021 by Abimbola Johnson, and minor text corrections 21 March 2021