Saturday, 11 July 2015

Some Uncharitable Thoughts

I don't know whether you've seen this upsetting story from Bristol recently. An elderly lady who had spent time doing charity fundraising committed suicide, allegedly prompted, in part, by a deluge of fundraising communications from organisations asking for support.

I personally have an elderly neighbour aged 90, and she constantly complains about the quantity of charity letters she receives. Recently, I offered to take away a bunch of letters and use the SAE's inside to get rid of some of them. Here is the pile of bumpf, pictured. It includes post-it notes, sticky things for the fridge, greetings cards, and 12 pence in coins.

Because I have access to a computer and printer, and knowledge of how the system works, it is easy for me to tell these people to go away. For my 90-year old neighbour it's not so easy: she doesn't use a computer, has arthritic hands that make writing a chore, and doesn't know about the data protection act. She doesn't know that if you tell people to go away they legally have to abide by that. Fortunately she is not psychologically vulnerable, but she does get annoyed by the deluge of mail, the guilt-tripping, and the necessary recycling involved.

Having taken away the letters, I was depressed by not only the sheer volume but also the dodgy tactics therein. Guilt-tripping was just the start: there was also the random, unsolicited crap, like fridge stickers, which can surely serve no purpose other than going straight to landfill. Why, for example, is Mencap sending out recipe cards? How is that relevant to the purpose of the charity, which is to help people with learning disabilities?

The worst guilt-tripping tactics came from World Villages for Children, which sellotaped 12 pence in coins to its letter, along with this charming message. They also mention in the small print that they transfer your data out of the EU, so data protection doesn't apply. Incidentally, World Villages for Children scores a terrible 1 out of four stars for financial accountability on this useful charity-rating website.


About half of the charities were so desperate for cash they added grabby little messages on the backs of envelopes, like 'Don't forget to include your cheque or postal order!' Only one out of 15, the medical charity Smile Train, managed to sound actually grateful to its donors.

Others, like this leaflet from Arthritis Research UK, were simply tactless. My neighbour's hands look like that.

Another communication, from an organisation called 'Together Against Cancer' seemed to be from a group that runs juicing workshops. Nonetheless they have a bona fide charity number. Why, you may ask?

Well, Britain has archaic charity laws and what is considered a charitable activity is rather weird. (Public schools, for a start.) Let's take Smile Train, the people who bothered to actually thank their donors. Smile Train's appeal focuses on a child in Tanzania. I've been to Tanzania: it really is atrociously poor. Everything, including the healthcare system, is frankly utterly buggered. If Smile Train want to help the victims, that's good. But should they want to discuss how and why there's no adequate healthcare in Tanzania, with either, say the Tanzanian government, or the IMF, which ran its finances for some years, then their charity status will disappear faster than you can say 'charitable purposes'. Juicing workshops, on the other hand, will tickbox some priority like 'health education', and thus pass through the check.

Some years ago I actually had a job opening these charity donation envelopes. I don't want to say which charity, but I will say it was a great job, which I enjoyed. One of the things I liked was the little letters people would include with their donation cheques, saying how sorry they were about the bad things that had happened, how much they'd personally like to help, but couldn't or wouldn't know how, and how glad they were that you could send someone out there for them. It really was heart-warming, and renewed your faith in human nature.

However, one of the things I realised in this job was that if you send out an appeal saying something like 'Help a child like Bob (Bob, typically, will be a large-eyed child), his home has been swept away in a flood', then out of about 100 donations received, at least one person will think that their money is actually going to Bob. In person. About ten donors who are a bit brighter will realise that 'a child like' is the operative bit of that sentence, and assume, quite reasonably, that their donation will be going to help people caught up in the flood. It may not, of course.

Why? Well, lets suppose that Bob's home floods on the first of the month: the charity sends out it's 'Help Bob' appeal two days later, on the third. People respond over the next week: the money comes in, is processed, banked, cleared and marked up as 'Bob: the flood'. By then it will be at earliest the 14th of the month, and frankly if you wait till then to spend that money, Bob will already have died of dysentery. In reality what happened is that the agency swung into action on the evening of the 1st, worked out where the flood was, what equipment was needed, and loaded it onto a plane. By the second or the third of the month, while the fundraising team is tweaking the appeal ('Maybe make the eyes a big bigger, and the flood look a bit scarier?') huge amounts of money will be rushing out of the charity's accounts to pay for staff, transportation, medical supplies, or whatever is needed. Your tenner, marked up 'Bob: the flood, funding appeal' will go back into the pot to pay for the next hour of need. There's actually nothing wrong with that.

Of course, your tenner, if you have responded to a more general appeal ('Remember Bob? Help us help the next child') may go to something less glamorous. It may fund the CEO to point out to the government that maybe aid money should be spent on flood prevention. It may go to the salary of the Finance Manager who pays the bill for the equipment and plane that was hired. It may pay the person who opened your 'Help Bob' donation envelope. However, part of the problem is that people don't like this idea. They want all their money to be spent on Bob. This just isn't possible.

Everyone who runs a charity is struggling to get money to cover all that stuff I just listed, that nobody wants to fund. There is a limited amount of funds to be given, and all these organisations are competing against each other to cover all this nobody-wants-to-fund-it stuff. Fundraising staff have targets, and their career rises or falls on meeting them, on behalf of their employer. And so sometimes they forget that actually, the basis of the whole thing rides on the little handwritten notes that say 'I was so upset to read about Bob, I hope he is OK now' not on the Fundraising Manager of Charity X getting a 0.1% increase of donations in sector as compared to Charity Y. The whole shebang relies on human goodwill, which is an intangible, and you can't always see when it's been spent.

If everyone stops caring because they are so sick of being deluged in vile, cynical, whiny fundraising appeals, then at some point both X and Y will be raising 0% of frankly fuck all. And then when will Bob be? Bob, the poor generic large-eyed victim of whatever, will be sadly, regrettably drowned.

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