Monday, 4 August 2008

Feeling Charitable?

I very rarely buy The Big Issue.

I know, I know – it’s a great idea: the homeless person is able to make a living, prove to employers that they are making an effort to improve their situation and also to win back some self-respect. It’s a worthwhile cause.

However, here’s my problem: I don’t actually like to read it.

Now you can argue that this is a bad reason not to buy it – it is, after all, for charity. Maybe you’re right. But to me there are a number of issues with doing something just for the sake of being charitable

Firstly – if I buy something that I don’t want just because it’s for charity am I doing it to actually help the person or just to ease my own guilt at having more than this person? Am I doing it to look or feel good? To what extent does the famous rock star support a given charity, as to appearing at an event in the hopes of helping sales of their back-catalogue?

Secondly – by buying this product that I don’t want am I, in fact, patronising the person selling it?

Thirdly – and this is a big one – what happens when I reach the next Big Issue salesperson? I helped the last one, but now I’m refusing to help this one? Hardly seems fair and I can’t help them all.

On one of his many trips around the world writer, performer, comedian and presenter Michael Palin asked the same question whilst in a taxi in India. He was surrounded by children asking for money and he asked: but what about the next one, and the next one and the next one? Can you ever make a difference?

Fourthly – the charities themselves worry me. I went for an interview some years ago with a charity. I was supposed to phone companies and persuade them to make corporate donations. For every “sale” I made I would have received 10% commission. The same company also employed drivers who got paid 10% for picking up the donations in certain timeframes. That’s 20% gone before you even factor in salaries, office space and administration costs. I turned the job down.

There are plenty of phone-in charity based TV shows where callers vote for their favourite act (Strictly Come Dancing etc) where the presenters never fail to remind us that 10p from every call goes to charity. What they don’t mention is that this is a premium line and you, the caller, are paying anywhere from 35p to £1 for the call – nor do they mention where the rest of the money goes (IE profit)

To be a registered charity you only have to give about 1%-10% of your income to the charity and you can pretty much start a charity based on anything. For instance the institute that sets examinations in British Sign Language is a registered charity, but it’s very unclear exactly what they do that is “charitable”

What’s worse is that if you give your money to a hospital in the UK there is no requirement for them to spend if on your requested area: so if you asked for the cancer ward to receive your donation, but the cancer ward has already had a certain amount of funding that financial year then the hospital are perfectly at liberty to spend the money elsewhere. Someone I know actually donated some money to a local hospital to provide some screens for a private area for parents – they came along some months later and there were no screens: the hospital had taken a cut of the money, leaving the ward without enough to buy the screens.

But this isn’t meant as a negative post – because over the weekend I saw a documentary.

It was about an orphanage in a place called Agape in Africa, where a young choir was putting together a CD, just to raise money to keep going. Very few people in the UK will have to have buried both their parents due to HIV. In fact the truth is that our western world we have forgotten that HIV kills, we think we can just take a pill and live quite normally. Not so for these children.

Some of these kids were having to look after their whole families by the age of 22, others were too young to understand that their parents were never coming back. And the thing was that no one had ever told them that one person can’t make a difference - so they were headed out to do it regardless

Pretty moving stuff – but again, that voice of doubt was in the back of my mind: so I sent an email to the charity to find out how much of the money from donations actually reached the end point. Here is the response:

The RISE Foundation partners with the production company, RISE films. RISE films produced WE ARE TOGETHER but on a completely not for profit basis. 100% of all the profits go directly to the RISE Foundation. For over a year now, we have been paying the school fees of all the kids at the Agape orphanage. Each month we directly pay these school fees. We are setting up an Education Trust Fund that will offer many orphaned and disadvantaged children a bursary to attend school and empower them to pursue a brighter future. It will be a permanent endowment, so that the project is sustainable and the chidren’s futures are secured in perpetuity. The fund does not just pay the children’s school fees; they also receive their own tutor to help provide them with the encouragement and support that they would normally have received from their parents.

The RISE Foundation has very few running costs. In fact, last year, our expenses made up 11% of our revenue. I am the only full time employee and work together with the board of trustees. I share an office with RISE films who covers the majority of our running costs. The remaining costs (posting, subsidized phone bills, my salary etc) are covered by 15% of the donations. The remaining 85% goes directly towards the kid’s education. A certain percentage sits in our current account, from which we pay the school fees on a monthly basis and the rest goes into our savings account which will form the Education Trust Fund.
As you will see, our running costs are very low but if you are still concerned, please do let me know. It can be arranged for 100% of your donation to go to our education trust fund and to by pass the 15% running costs.

So anyway, i bought the CD & DVD, and with a relatively clear conscience. Music is something that i am deeply passionate about - so, unlike The Big Issue, it was both a product and a cause that i felt able to support. Plus there were no nasty Corporate Directors taking their cut

Now – I’m not going to ask you to follow the link to and buy the film or CD as I have (readily available from amazon), I’m not even going to ask you to go to and make a donation there either – what I’m suggesting is this:

We all want to make a difference, but let’s make sure we make it the right way. Next time you think about giving to charity get in touch with them first – ask them where the money is going and make your decision based on that.

One person can’t change the world, but if we think about things a bit first then maybe we can change a life and maybe that's a good place to start.


Lydia said...

Very thoughtful post. It's impressive to me that you received a response to your query from the only paid employee for the charity.
I believe it was Honour, one of your readers,who referred me to this site some months ago; I've used it several times to check on the validity of charities.

Honour said...

Strong posting with good points.
I visit a website that rates charities based on how well they spend their money (ah - I see Lydia just cited it! I LOVE the blogging community) ....

And, frankly, I will say that the HIV/AIDS in Africa cause is one of the few movements where I feel that any contribution is a worthy contribution.

(If you've ever had the privelege of hearing Stephen Lewis speak on this topic - it will stay with you forever ....)

I will keep an eye out for the CD :)p.s. whats the name of the documentary??????

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Hi Lydia - thanks for the link. I was reasonably impressed with the quick response - though its possible it was a standard text, but when other organisations have such high over-heads...(did someone mention Oxfam? Not me...)

Honour - the documentary is called "We Are Together" and is viewable from the website (or purchasable).

soulbrush said...

great post, and so good to remind us that we can all give just a little bit to help others (for the right reasons). i admit that i also only buy the big issue to help the seller and don't read it, but i feel okay about that.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Hi Soulbrush - that's just fine. You're still making a difference

Anonymous said...

I pass by Jehovah's Witnesses and Israelite Church people all the time, handing me pamphlets and encouraging me to go to their church. But I don't throw the pamphlet out after reading it, I leave it on a train seat or bus seat; someone else might be interested.

The same thing with buying "The Big Issue". I'd buy it, probably peruse through it, and then maybe give it to someone else or leave it in the public eye somewhere. You found a product from them that you're interested in, so it really doesn't matter, but my thing is, whether you're donating to look at yourself better or are wholeheartedly with intent to support them, the fact is that you're still in the process of helping out.

And no, you're right in saying that one person cannot change the world, but yes, one person can make a difference. That difference may not take a form that you recognize immediately or at all, but it is made regardless.