New Times,
New Thinking.

22 July 2010

Charity begins at home

How are you meant to choose how you give to charity?

By Mark Watson

Dear friends,

Last night a small incident occurred which made me uncomfortable and I’ve been thinking about it, as is my wont with uncomfortable incidents, on and off throughout the day. I thought I’d share it with you in today’s blog and open up one of those discussions we all enjoy so much.

Basically, it was a Charity Man. You’ll all have been stopped in the street by Charity Men or Women: normally good-looking students, who throw you out of your stride by saying something nice like “Hello sir, you look like a generous man” or “Madam, you seem like you might want to give £25 a month to somebody in Africa”. Then they give you a very well-rehearsed spiel about how a few pounds a month isn’t much to you, but it would buy a mosquito net or a donkey for someone in the developing world.

You say that you’re interested but you’re in a bit of a hurry, can you go on their website? They say, actually, it’s much better if you give them your bank details now, because if you go via the site, not all your money goes to the charity. You give in, fill out a clipboard and create a new standing order.

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These people are called “chuggers” (charity muggers) and they do an important job, forcing members of the public to engage with issues that they would ordinarily think about guiltily, but not quite get involved in.

But this guy last night rang my doorbell. I was in the middle of helping to put Kit to bed. The guy was very charming and friendly, and — unfortunately, in the context — recognised me from the TV. He started trying to get me to donate to help deaf children. I asked if I could go away, read some stuff about it at a more convenient time, and do it online if I decided to. He said no, he’d much rather I signed up then and there. I really didn’t want to do that, even though I was feeling more and more that if I had any decency, I ought to.

Finally, I got him to go away, but we agreed he’d come back in a couple of hours. I don’t think he came back in the end; if he did, I was asleep or something. So I didn’t sign up for the charity. So I expended quite a bit of energy avoiding giving money to disadvantaged kids.

Now, as you know, I went out to Senegal with ActionAid and since then I’ve been sponsoring a little boy over there. Well before that, I was already sponsoring a girl called Francine in Cameroon. Also, the wife and I sponsor a family in Moldova through the scheme set up by my sisters. So I already have three ongoing charity commitments, which is enough for most people.

Nonetheless, the fact is, I could afford to do more. I probably could have committed another 20 quid a month to the deaf children. It wasn’t really the financial aspect that made me reluctant, it was the fact that the guy had come knocking on my door and I felt on the back foot. But, even more than that, it was the gut feeling which many of us experience in relation to charity, but are not really allowed to voice: “Where is this going to end?”

There are just so many worthy causes. A couple of weeks ago I was telling you about Patrick, the guy with motor neurone disease who’s doing as many portraits as he can in the remainder of his life. In August I’m doing something for cystic fibrosis sufferers. There are various environmental charities I’ve made one-off donations to. There are always disasters that crop up, like Haiti.

There are endangered species dying out, people with diseases you’ve not even heard of, the families of people with Parkinson’s, things like Comic Relief and Sport Relief, which continue to help the world’s poorest communities, Alzheimer’s care, schools for kids with autism, the Samaritans, and on it goes. There are something like 80,000 charities in the UK. And even then, there are more things like my brother’s football project which I’m emotionally connected to although they aren’t exactly charities.

How are you meant to choose how you give to charity? I feel uncomfortable that I’d be more likely to give to a cause that harassed me on my doorstep, but at the same time, I quite understand that if I were them, I’d probably harass me, too, because it works. Charities are engaged in an ongoing, massive scramble not just to win money from the public’s many other temptations, but to win money from each other.

Charity, like everything, is a competition, however cruel that sounds. How are you meant to know which side to back? Is it better just to pick one cause, and support that exclusively for ever? Or is it only fair to spread it around and try to help five, or ten?

And also, where do you draw the line? On the one hand, quite clearly I’m entitled not to give to anyone at all if I don’t want to — I earn my money, pay my taxes, support a family, etc. But I can’t really hide behind that argument because, when it comes down to it, I do earn more than the national average, I do have some disposable income, and I have a pretty clear moral duty to help those in need. I don’t have a moral duty to help every last bloody person or animal who is in any kind of need. But it’s really, really difficult to decide where to call a halt. OK, so those two kids in Africa are important, but finding a cure for breast cancer isn’t? Blind people deserve my support, deaf people don’t, just because blind people asked first?

I think these questions are quite pressing because there are more and more and more charities out there on the streets vying for your money, and more of them are surely going to start ringing on doorbells to get the upper hand. If it was any other form of business you’d feel it was a simple matter of picking the ones that impressed you most. Charity is so fraught with middle-class guilt, though — and well-deserved guilt at that — that it feels truly distasteful to approach it like that. But what else am I meant to do, people?

I’d be grateful for your opinions. For each comment you leave, 10p goes to . . . not really.

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