Britain’s largest charity for older LGBT people has been seeking donations from the adult subscription site OnlyFans – in an attempt to prop up its ailing finances, an investigation by i can reveal.

Opening Doors London held talks last year with the subscription site, which has previously been exposed as hosting underage content, hoping to gain a £100,000 grant. At the same time the charity owed thousands to HMRC in PAYE payments; leaving its own volunteers short-changed; and being warned it was “on the brink of insolvency”.

For nearly 15 years, Opening Doors London (ODL) has provided support services, social events, and activities for LGBT seniors in the capital. “Opening Doors is here to let LGBTQ+ people over 50 know they are not alone,” the charity’s website says. As well as receiving public money from local councils in London, ODL also obtains grants from the National Lottery Community Fund and other charitable trusts.

But according to a whistle-blower who provided i with a huge cache of documents — including its accounts, bills, internal emails, and minutes from board meetings — “it’s bust”.

The problems at the charity are a tragedy, he told i, particularly as the need for its services are greater than ever before, with loneliness and poverty among elderly LGBT people soaring.

When approached by i, the chair of the board of trustees denied ODL was insolvent, but admitted it has hired an insolvency practitioner and has “been able to avoid ceasing operations”.

ODL held talks with OnlyFans over the summer to rescue the charity’s financial situation — a year after a BBC investigation found OnlyFans was hosting profiles from underage people providing pornographic material. The report said the site was failing to stop teenagers as young as 14 from using fake ID to set up an account from which they could sell indecent content. Britain’s most senior police officer responsible for child protection said at the time that children were being exploited on the platform.

In response, OnlyFans said at the time it had shut down the underage profiles — although was unable to comment on specific accounts — and that it has age verification systems that go beyond regulatory requirements. “This is something that we take very seriously,” a spokesperson said. “We constantly review our systems to ensure they are as robust as possible.” A follow-up report by Newsnight in October 2022, however, revealed that the senior US law enforcement agent they had asked to investigate found that “within an hour they were able to find ten examples originating from OnlyFans which they believed have been created in the last six months being traded by paedophiles online.”

Talks between ODL and OnlyFans were not only to secure funding. According to the minutes of an ODL board meeting on 30 June 2022, the discussions focused on a “multi-year partnership” that would also “support to raise our profile”, be an “opportunity [to] encourage new donors”, and would involve “support in creating new content”.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 16: The OnlyFans Logo is displayed on a tablet at the OnlyFans creative fund filming event on November 16, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for OnlyFans)
According to the minutes of an ODL board meeting, discussions with OnlyFans focused on a “multi-year partnership” (Credit: John Phillips/Getty Images)

The minutes reveal that the potential donation was discussed at a senior level and “a number of trustees had specific concerns about the sexually explicit material available and the involvement of young people on the site, and felt that this was not an appropriate partnership for OD[L]”.

But rather than end discussions, the charity’s head of fundraising and communications has been “working to engage a PR company on a pro-bono basis to support Opening Doors [to] manage this”.

Apparent justifications for the continued talks with OnlyFans were documented in the minutes, including the argument that “sex workers are a marginalised group”, that “most social media platforms have sexually explicit material if you look for it”, and that “people chose to go on this site and pay for material”.

The charity’s then CEO, Alice Wallace, informed the National Lottery — which gives ODL around £145,000 a year — about the potential donation from OnlyFans.

“AW had spoken to our biggest funder [NLCF] to sound them out,” the minutes read. “Their response was that it was a decision for our trustees to take – their concern would also be around their own reputation should an issue arise and that we should have robust plans in place”. Wallace did not respond when approached by i for comment.

ODL’s chair, Julia Shelley, however, told i: “Opening Doors engages with numerous corporate organisations to seek funding for our work, ensuring we can provide all-important support to the most vulnerable older members of the LGBTQ+ communities. Due diligence checks are conducted when considering our corporate partnerships and any risks are added to our risk register.”

Julia Shelley Pic: LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/julia-shelley-35835b33/
ODL’s chair Julia Shelley (Credit: LinkedIn)

Denying insolvency, Shelley said ODL had reserve funds of over £265,000 in their audited statement from 2020-2021. This amount, however, was from the end of March 2021, and internal documents reveal that the head of finance told senior management in January 2022 that by then ODL had a deficit of over £263,000 and was “on the brink of insolvency”.

In July 2022, an interim finance director wrote, “The reserves brought forward in April were close to exhausted in January (£6k remaining)” and by April 2022, “ODL had a deficit in reserves, and should not be considered a going concern.”

Although there is not a strict legal definition of insolvency, the Charity Commission invokes the phrase “unable to pay its debts” from the Insolvency Act 1986, and the “value of its liabilities exceeds the value of its assets” as two crucial tests. While charities can continue operating while insolvent, this is only “if great care is exercised” according to the Commission — and if they continue despite knowing there’s “no reasonable prospect” it can avoid liquidation then it is deemed “wrongful trading”. If proved in court this can leave directors of the charity personally liable.

Minutes of the June boarding meeting raise other concerns: “We have no opening fund balances and so are in breach of our own fiduciary duties to our funders and supporters (and charity commission)”. Specifically, the minutes noted that “restricted funds were being used to fund salaries not related to their primary purpose”. And due to the end-of-year accounts still not having been produced, “we do not know what restricted/unrestricted funds we have”.

Restricted funds are the grants given by organisations including local or central government, charities, and trusts, to be used for specific, prescribed costs, such as the salary of a particular employee. It can be unlawful to breach the terms of a restricted fund.

But when the allegation was put to ODL, the chair denied the potential misuse of restricted funds. “During the current financial year, we reviewed in detail all income with our new bookkeeper and attributed income accurately, including assigning some income towards core costs, as per our funding agreements.”

For months, the whistle-blower tried to warn management about his concerns, emailing the chair of trustees in July, informing her there wasn’t enough money to pay salaries. “Please do not approve this payroll without seeking legal advice first as the payroll is not covered by an existing grant which would be misappropriation of funds,” he wrote.

This email, he told i, “was ignored and payroll was run when they did not have the money”.

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The charity kept going. “They committed to a rent on a property. They didn’t have money for it,” said the whistle-blower. The rent was over £25,000 a year with office space big enough for every employee to have their own desk — but the staff, he said, only worked together at the same time two days a month. The chair told i in a statement that ODL will soon be moving to an “even more affordable office”.

“They committed to mobile phone bills, but they didn’t have money for it,” the whistle-blower. “So actually, by the end of March, they did not have money left to pay staff and they continued to operate.”

A statement from HMRC reveals that by early July they owed three months of PAYE contributions totalling over £35,000 with another £10,000 due by early August. HMRC wrote to the charity informing them of their debts and reminding them, “This includes interest of £397.21 that will increase each day.”

“When you get paid your salary each month that PAYE and National Insurance is neither your money nor the employer’s — it’s the government’s money,” said the whistle-blower.

The charity told i: “Opening Doors has some payment arrears with HMRC relating to PAYE payments earlier this financial year. There are no earlier payments outstanding, and we have a repayment agreement in place with HMRC to clear the arrears in the next 12 months.”

By mid-July, Alice Wallace resigned from her £58,000-a-year position as director of ODL. She was put on gardening leave and given three months’ pay, in line with her contract, but only half of her salary was paid by the National Lottery grant. ODL told i: “the charity was in the financial position to cover these costs.” The whistle-blower, however, said that by this time the charity had already been warned it was in financial trouble — and ODL owed HMRC thousands by this point.

While paying Wallace, internal emails reveal discussions about having inadvertently underpaid staff. One employee had been short-changed, accidentally, for a year by approximately £4,200. When Wallace was made aware of this, she emailed other managers saying, “I am expecting him to contact me to ask why the significant difference [in pay] from last year. This leaves us in an awkward position.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 02: A general view during Pride in London 2022: The 50th Anniversary at Trafalgar Square on July 02, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London)
The whistleblower says the problems at the charity for older LGBT people are a “tragedy” (Credit: Getty Images Europe)

A volunteer who runs a Sunday lunch club for ODL was also left out of pocket for months. To run the club, the charity hires a venue where he cooks a substantial meal for service users, who contribute whatever they can afford, and along with those contributions, the charity is supposed to reimburse him. But the accounts show two months in which the volunteer was not reimbursed by over £300. The room rental wasn’t paid either, for three months.

This wasn’t unusual. The accounts show that ODL also didn’t pay St. Anne’s church in Soho — famous for its support of the LGBT community — after hiring part of it to host a Pride party for elderly members.

ODL denies under-paying staff, but added, “There were some short delays with paying invoices as we were seeking advice on our solvency, as per best practice. Invoices are now paid regularly, and arrangements are in place with any creditors.”

Companies house records show that ODL was granted an extension to finalise its accounts for the financial year 2021-2022 and did so last month. An independent examiner stated he had “no concerns” about the accounts, that he considered it “appropriate” for the trustees to deem the charity a “going concern” and felt “happy with the trustees’ expectation that the Charitable [sic] has adequate resources to continue”.

The accounts, however, state that ODL was in an “operating deficit in 2021/2022”, “had to make use of our unrestricted reserves”, and “ended the year in a much weaker financial position but remains sharply focused on cost reduction”. It added, “The Board continue to take a prudent approach to cost management”.

Days after filing these accounts, however, ODL advertised for a new CEO on an interim basis, at a day rate of £450. Although only for three months, three days a week, and although it is not uncommon for contractors to be more expensive, if this were an annual salary it would be roughly £117,000 — nearly double the previous CEO’s salary. Soon after, the treasurer of ODL stepped down.

While many charities have been struggling financially since the pandemic, with donations down and grants cut, the whistle-blower believes the problems facing ODL have been partly self-inflicted. In an email to the chair in August 2022, he said the former CEO — who was on gardening leave at the time and has not yet been replaced — “presided over financial mismanagement”, while the trustees had “failed in their public duty”. ODL denies these allegations, and told i, “the board of trustees has acted appropriately”.

The whistle-blower told i: “There’s a lot of anxiety right now, especially with the cost-of-living crisis, so having somewhere to go and just not feel alone with that anxiety is a lifeline for people.”

The Sunday lunch club, in particular, provides a haven for those in need during difficult times. “They look forward to it. It’s in their calendar. And that’s really heart-breaking.”

He hopes ODL survives, but until he left the organisation, the picture seemed clear. ODL, he said, was “failing its members, volunteers, and the wider community.”

A spokesperson from OnlyFans told i: “OnlyFans is an 18s and over platform and we are committed to preventing minors from accessing or creating content on our site. That is why we verify the age and identity of all the creators on our platform and review all videos, images and messages on our site.

“We believe that all platforms have a role to play in creating safe and inclusive online communities and work closely with law enforcement, NGOs, charities and regulators to ensure that we are playing a leading role in creating a positive online environment that protects children and adults from online harm.”

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