Charity Begins At Home?

First published in Huffington Post

While out converging with Corporate Social Responsibility enthusiasts in trendy Smithfield, our flat screen TV was being 40½ inched through our front living room window. Suffice to say that the finer points of fundraising strategy – the topic of discussion between complimentary glasses of wine – were no longer foremost in my mind. I was instead wondering how the intruders had got below the radar of the curtain-twitchers across our usually uneventful suburban street. But more riling was the response of the authorities or the lack thereof. We were made victims not so much by the smash-and-grab opportunists but by the managerial local constabulary and their therapeutic friends at registered charity (and proposed beneficiary of prison labour) Victim Support. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, their combined efforts, while doing nothing to apprehend the culprits, only succeeded in placing us firmly in the box marked ‘victim’.

‘On being burgled’ wasn’t supposed to be the topic of this, my first, Huffington Post. Next month I will be speaking at Doing it for charity? at the Battle of Ideas in London. The title of the debate alludes to Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s 1990s satirical Radio 1 DJs Smashy and Nicey. They liked to do lots for ‘charidee’ but didn’t like to talk about it – the joke being, of course, that they could talk about little else. These characters came to mind while listening to Kim Van Niekirk, founder of and Kate Wolfenden of Childreach International, on that unexpectedly fateful evening.

Van Niekirk began by taking us back to a more naïve time, the 1980s, when millions put their hands in their pockets for the bloated babies of Ethiopia. Several Live-Aid and Comic Relief-esque efforts later, and with more swollen bellies to boot, we’re a much more cynical lot. Today’s ‘savvy donor’ takes much more persuading. Or at least they would do, I thought to myself, if fundraisers actuallytried to persuade us. Instead, they are more interested in nudging us, as Wolfenden enthused, into ‘changing habits and behaviours’ that might also ‘help us save lives around the world’. In an age where people are wise to the failures of charity appeals, and when fundraising has become increasingly professionalised, it is ‘all about you, the donor’ said Van Niekirk. But since when was charity about the donor, the ‘extension of what they want to be and what they want the world to be like’ or helping us to ‘become more rounded citizens’? This resorting by a charity sector that has evidently lost its way to the donor-flattering politics of identity is nothing to celebrate.

Whatever happened to the good cause or ‘charidee’ as we used to know it? Surely this should be the focus of fundraising efforts – convincing people that the cause, whatever it might be, is a good thing in itself and worth supporting? While today’s sector seems to have lost track of what charity is all about, it seems to want to turn the rest of us into self-regarding Smashys and Niceys. More worrying still is the petty-authoritarian streak. Presumably resigned to the fact that they can’t make much of a difference in the world anymore, potential donors are being asked not just to donate money but to see the ills of the world through the prism of their politically-incorrect lifestyles. Whether its eco-guilt tripping with Van Niekirk’s green light switches, or financial gimmicks like Wolfenden’s loyalty cards. There’s no attempt to engage us as thoughtful, compassionate types who might just be interested in helping our fellow human beings, without it having to be all about us.

Having said that, sometimes charity does begin at home. Our neighbours rallying around, with their kindly enquiries, shared anxieties and sugary mugs of tea, couldn’t have been more charitable.

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