Thursday, 31 March 2011

Giving to charity

I'm in two minds about charities.

On the one hand is this pure and altruistic idea that a person can have an unselfish impulse to assist others who are in a desperate plight, by donating money, goods or personal effort to alleviate their suffering. What a noble thing: surely one of the very best outcomes of establishing a civilised society?

On the other hand - human nature being what it is - there can be a certain embarrassment in stepping forward, an inertia to act, and sometimes a need to prick a complacent conscience, or overcome plain mean-spiritedness. All of which means positively encouraging the act of giving. Professional fund-raising has to use a variety of coercive techniques. At some level that can become the relentless pressure of the hard sell, and very objectionable.

Yesterday the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Chidren overstepped the mark so far as I was concerned. God knows, I respect the NSPCC's work. Child cruelty, exploitation and neglect is an abomination and self-evidently needs to be fought against. The NSPCC are not the only charity active in their area, but they are a major national organisation and an obvious body to give money to - if you have an impulse to help in that area, and in that way. I mean, you have a choice, don't you?

Here are the roots of my annoyance. First, there are so many wrong things in the world. Where do you begin? It is often said that charity begins at home, which I interpret to mean that if a family member or close friend or a neighbour gets into difficulties, you can step in with appropriate help. Widening the circle, you might make a worthwhile donation to a local organisation that is doing good and effective work and clearly needs personal support. And I have indeed given from time to time in some of these close-to-home circumstances.

Then it starts to get less personal. I generally respond to the Lifeboat people, the RNLI. Almost always, in fact. I am - for family reasons - sympathetic to Cancer Research. Who next? Well, that's a good question. Most charities are engaged in work that deserves attention and support, but you can't give to them all. Another thing. At at this level, it's always a question of money. And there's always a gulf or distance between your donation and whatever effect it has. The feeling of personal intervention is quite absent. You have only a vague glow from handing over cash to a hired stranger with an ID card.

So when I picked up the phone yesterday and was assailed by the polite but urgent voice of an NSPCC fundraiser - not even the charity itself - I felt backed into a corner on a matter that while important was remote from my local world. And this was the third phone call from them in a week. Clearly I was on a list, and being targeted. Just because a while back I'd felt impelled to make an online donation of £20. A one-off donation. Now they wanted to pressure me into setting up a regular monthly payment by direct debit.

I was annoyed, and objected. First, I felt badgered by this insistent telephone approach: no more of it please! This was promised. Second, where was the spontaneous charitable impulse in a regular monthly payment through a bank? This was losing sight of the very essence of charity. It might be an efficient way of raising money, but it was degrading the act of charity to a routine bill, or a kind of tax, that one would hardly notice.

If there had to be a levy, then I'd rather see a penny on income tax and the government handling the money raised, controlling it centrally, and channeling it directly to a limited number of benevolent agencies.

The NSPCC affair still rankles. And of course I'll continue to get written approaches from them, in both my old name and the new. What a waste of resources. Grrrr.


  1. I've also had a few of these high-pressure charity calls. One was so insistent that I agreed to a regular direct debit just to shut him up, then cancelled it as soon as it appeared on my bank details. Hopefully they'll get the message. I also wrote to the National Trust, threatening to cancel my membership after a particularly aggressive 'sales pitch' from an agency working on their behalf.

  2. Sometimes I have the time to repeat "no, thank you" three times and hang up before the person at the other end stops talking.
    I can only support so many charities and they have been chosen long ago. Some receive without being on my list - they operate from street corners or sidewalks.

  3. If someone calls for a donation, I tell them I don't do this sort of thing over the phone. I appreciate that it's more cost-effective for them than mailing, but I just don't like it.

    Like Ellena, I have certain organazations on my list that I chose deliberately.

    It's never the same as when you give your own time in a volunteer capacity, but there are organizations that do essential work, such as Médecins sans frontières, and they need private funding.

  4. Yes, they really can get on your nerves, can't they? I got so fed up with unsolicited calls, that I got a telephone with a built in answering machine. No one gets through to me, without first identifying who they are and stating their business. Hucksters and charities like ambush you, so they always hang up, as soon as my personal message requiring them to identify them self and state their business comes on. I still get plenty of solicitations in the mail, but they almost always go straight into the trash without even being opened. It's not that I am heartless, far from it. I have a lot of compassion for the unfortunate, but I am very selective about who I contribute to. There are literally hundreds of charities begging for my money. Some are worthy, many are not, but even if I wanted to, I couldn't possibly support them all. Many of these charities are huge organizations, with high overhead costs, and high paid executives, that exist largely for themselves. Only a fraction of your donation ever does anyone any real good, and the rest is wasted on running the organization. Other more devious charities, are thinly veiled fronts for religious proselytizers, and I absolutely refuse to give them a dime, no matter how many sad little third world children they exploit, by parading them tearfully before their cameras. I will however contribute generously to international relief funds for natural disaster victims, and to local charities that feed and clothe the homeless, and provide meals for the indigent elderly, who are homebound.

    Melissa XX

  5. When I worked for the U.S. Government, they had a yearly ( 1 month long) “open season” with charities. They would publish a booklet that in a small paragraph, would state the work or helps it did, etc. One of item listed actually showed the operating cost of the charity. Surprisingly, some showed a 75% operational cost. Costing more to kept people calling that to help said same! I often think I’d rather hand a twenty to a needy neighbor than work with some “charities”.

  6. I've heard stories like that many times, in the end they seem to alienate willing donors. Charities are also paying astonishing rates of commission to these third parties which explains the sometimes pressure selling.


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