Sweet Charity

5th January 2008

Heather Harris digs deep

Charity begins at… the internet, the supermarket and on the television. In fact, anywhere but the home. People shaking collecting tins on the doorstep are now a species as endangered as the white tigers we are being asked to adopt. Gone are the days when a hand-woven pashmina was the ideal politically correct gift – these days giving a bore hole is the bare minimum, closely followed by an entire African Village.

Not that I’m knocking it – whoever it was in the Oxfam marketing department who came up with the idea of packaging aid as a present was a fund raising genius. I mean, doesn’t it make us feel good when we’re the person who chose to Adopt a Donkey for a relative’s birthday rather than give them an electric blanket.

Wedding lists can also come with halo attached, with guests now cordially invited to Save a Rainforest or Vaccinate a Herd of Lions rather than opt for the more materialistic set of towels (unless of course they come embossed with a Sold In Aid Of the Homeless logo).

Charity is big business, too, with more than half (54%) of the public regularly giving, to the tune of £9.5bn in 2007 according to the end of year report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). That this is 3 per cent down on last year is blamed more on the general economic squeeze than on any mass turning away from specific causes or overall charity fatigue.

As Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, told me: “We don’t know yet if this is just a blip. Individual donations play a huge role in funding the works that charities carry out in our communities, so we hope that worries such as increasing debt and rising house prices won’t put people off giving to the causes that need them.”

Married women are still by far the greatest givers, but when men do give they give more. This is certainly played out in our house where my jumper is regularly covered in circular stickers, mini daffodils and assorted ribbons, depending on which one of the UK’s 190,358 charities collared me outside M&S that day (how can you say ‘no’ to the starving millions when you’re pushing a trolley full of overpriced asparagus and individual Spotted Dicks).

My husband, meanwhile, goes for the more lubricated approach. After a recent charity auction he woke up the next morning nursing a hangover, and a large frame: a ‘rare’ shot of football legend Bobby Moore hugging Pele. The only ‘rare’ thing about this hideous photocopy is the number of people who would pay as much as he did for it. But then there’s always the excuse “Oh well, it was for charity”.

That’s the same line trotted out by artists of hideous pop records, telethons and reality TV programmes. The schedules are now filled with Z list celebrities eating kangaroo testicles and dancing the Pasa Doble, all excused by the fact that 0.0000000003p of the voting call charge goes to charity. It’s also ironic that if the presenters of these charity events – Ant and Dec, Brucie, Bob Geldof and Terry Wogan – each gave just one week’s salary, plus a day from Jonathan Ross, there would be a significant dent in the Third World Debt levels.

But for some reason we have to suffer for our sponsorship. Just look at the UK’s largest fund raising event: the Flora London Marathon. We are the only country where runners not only have to pay an average of £2,000 to charity to compete but then insist on running the 26.2 miles in a 17 stone latex Rhino Suit. (Speaking from experience, my most humiliating moment was being overtaken at 22 miles by a man dressed as a large Pepperoni… no doubt raising money for Sausage Eaters Anonymous!)

In fact, the cause supported by the greatest number of people is medical research, followed by children/young people and then hospital/hospital charities. Animal charities still benefit from large windfalls left in the wills of grateful pet owners and the National Lottery successfully cajoles people to donate to worthy causes in the hope, of course, that they win squillions to squander on themselves.

There are online companies – such as Justgiving.com – and web portals, like eBay for Charity or Everyclick.com – set up entirely to capitalise on the British public’s hatred at collecting sponsorship money by allowing people to donate online. We’ll sit in a bath of cold baked beans, pogo stick naked or, in the case of our local Cub Scout pack, pick up other people’s cigarette butts for the evening – but ask us to take around the relevant sponsor form and we crumble, preferring to dip into our own pocket than ask someone to honour their ‘10p a minute/mile/day pledge’.

Meanwhile, I’m just looking forward to the next charity jumble sale – I’ve got a large photo of Bobby Moore and Pele that could raise a few bob for the church roof.

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