Thursday, January 21, 2010

Charity also ends at home

The following blog will probably make me sound like a bastard. A self-confessed, selfish bastard. If it does, please feel free to leave a comment telling me I’m a bastard. Don’t be dissuaded by the fact that I already know.

I seldom give to charities.

I can put forward a list of arguments as to why I rarely give, starting off with the financial argument that I’m a writer: I don’t have enough money to give to charities, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

I’m typing this blog into a fairly recent purchase – a PC that was brand new when I bought it two years ago. The software on the machine was the most expensive I’ve ever bought (the new version of Office that adds an ‘x’ to the suffix of every file just so the rest of the world can’t access my files any more). I’m well-fed. I can afford a bottle of beer when I care for one, a bar of chocolate whenever I don’t need one, and I drive a gas-guzzling car to the university centre where I spend some of my working week.

So it’s not that I can’t really afford to make a donation. I live in a comparatively wealthy country and I’m comfortable (if not affluent) with some disposable income in the back compartment of my leather wallet.

And it’s not that I’m without empathy. The recent situation in Haiti is heartbreaking. Global crises (whether they’re famine, war or ‘natural’ disasters) are always distressing and I honestly can’t imagine the cataclysmic devastation of such an event. I’m genuinely scared to contemplate the life-changing upheaval of such catastrophe because I know it would seriously hurt.

But still I seldom give to charities.

My decision is not political. I was around in the 80s when Live Aid was trying to raise money to help put an end to famine in Africa. It was a worthy cause, although many participants and politicians tried to make it political. It’s almost worthy of the darkest satire to show fat politicians in designer suits and chauffeur driven cars talking about the politics of being hungry, as though they know what that condition is like.

But that sort of exploitation and band-wagon-jumping is not why I rarely give to charities.

I could say it’s because I don’t trust charities. I’m not talking about the occasional tabloid scandal, where a charity boss has been found to have their fingers in the collecting jar. That’s human nature and forgivable. Also, such crimes happen so rarely it’s barely worth mentioning.

I also have no qualms about the 5-15% administrative costs that are removed from the intended source of each donation and given to the fundraisers. We all have to make a living and those who work for charities deserve something for their valuable time and effort.

And I’ve got no great qualms about the government taking their tax cut from charities. Admittedly, I don’t trust governments. And I do wonder why neither charities nor governments try to rectify our universal misconception that charities don’t pay tax. The cynic in me wonders if the governments think this myth makes them look benevolent whilst the charities know that donations would suffer if contributors learnt their money was lining the pockets of the tax man.

But that’s not the reason why I so rarely make charitable donations.

As I said at the start of this blog, you’ll think me a bastard by the time you’ve reached this point – and you’re justified in that opinion. I seldom make a financial donation to charities and my excuses are pathetic in the face of all the human (and animal) suffering that charities struggle to eliminate. Admittedly, if I’m in a position to invest time or effort to help an individual improve their lot, I will happily snatch that opportunity – and I have done whenever the occasion arises.

But I don’t make a habit of giving to charities. And I know that each of the reasons I’ve listed sound like the wheedling selfish excuses of an uncaring man who is trying to hide his personal greed behind intellectualised smokescreens.

My only genuine reason for not financially supporting charities is that I don’t have the time to invest in learning about the structure and ethical policy of each institution I’m potentially supporting.

I was once devastated to learn that I had (naively) contributed money to a cancer charity that advocated and funded vivisection. Instead of paying money to help someone live, I’d invested money in helping an animal to die. I was genuinely devastated.

I’ve contributed to Christian charities (which I won’t name here) who reportedly endorse discriminatory practices against gay and lesbian employees. Where I thought I was giving money to help a good cause, it seems I was paying to perpetuate bigotry, inequality and injustice.

This uncertainty about where my money is going, and what it is ultimately funding, is the sole reason why I prefer to invest my time in helping an individual or a cause, rather than handing over cash to support someone else’s efforts.

Charities do good work. I am not disputing that fact. I could quibble that there are too many of them – an estimated 1.4M charities in the US and more than 170,000 in the UK. But I’m convinced there are a lot of good causes that require support. The majority provide relief and aid with an even, ethical and conscionable approach. The causes that have been mentioned this week by my fellow bloggers here at the Grip are undoubtedly worthy. The bloggers here at the Grip (not including myself) are a wonderful bunch of people and I sincerely believe them when they speak of the good works of various charitable institutions. They’ve written some hugely emotive pieces on human suffering and shown the ways that charities can respond to them and alleviate some of the devastating impact caused by personal and international disasters. If you’ve been moved by anything that they’ve written this week I urge you to make any donation you can afford to match their selfless generosity.

Please don’t be swayed by the arguments of someone who is a self-confessed, selfish bastard.


  1. I can scarcely believe the selfish bit, and think you are not alone in your thoughts. There is quite a leap of faith taken when you don't or can't find out the details. I've had to set that aside in choosing my charity for the Haiti relief.

    You'll notice in my post's list of charitable interests, I give of my time and "things" but rarely cash. This is due to my own ongoing scepticism about where my dollars go and the scope and slant of the programs they support.

    One I didn't mention donating is my personal favorite and renewable resource: my hair. I've given a total of 56" of hair in the past 10 years to Locks Of Love to use in creating wigs for kids going through chemo. (There'll be another foot+ happening here within the next few months) Seems more immediate and personal and useable to me than writing a check. Can't do much harm with hair.

    And I'm sure you are giving the most valuable gift any parent can: raising your child to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

  2. Devon,

    I adore the idea of donating hair - and to such an incredibly worthy cause. Now, if I only had hair...

    Thanks for reading & responding,


  3. There's more to charity than charities -- and more to giving than cash.

  4. I understand not feeling comfortable giving money to charities for different reasons. There are all kinds of needs out there and ways to help. Volunteering at a soup kitchen for a day, roadside cleanup, things like that help a lot. One thing that I try to encourage on a local level is find a school guidance counselor or teacher and ask what students might need; then, at the beginning of the school year, a person could drop off some basic school supplies for kids who can't afford them. Not only are you helping that student get what he/she needs for school, but you're investing in what could be a future doctor, teacher, etc. Local businesses often have drop boxes for things like packs of paper, pencils, etc. at the beginning of each school year

  5. Ash - I can definitly understand. I always worry about when I am giving money.

    Which is why I am switching more and more to giving my time, like at the nature center. I know then that my efforts are going where I want them to. Even if the animal ends up having to be put down (like it did with the hawk that eyeballed me on the drive to the center) I know that I helped to ease it's last hours and it was put down with compassion instead of starving to death because it is too injured to fly and feed itself.


  6. Hi Ashley

    I think the charity thing is a calling. I don't give to charities much either except my mother in law, so I don't have much to say about that. I keep promising myself to give something to National Public radio the next time they're fund raising, because I least I listen to them.


  7. Hi Ash,

    A really interesting and thought provoking blog entry. I do have to agree with you, to a large extent. The money you give to charities may very well find its way into something other than what you intended.

    When this horror in Haiti occurred, it took my breath and tore at my heart. The utter devastation and pain of all those involved is more than I can dwell on for long. I think what really breaks my heart though, is knowing it will happen again. Maybe not there, but somewhere. More will die because of humanities drive to build more and breed more.

    They say we're due for the same kind of thing here. They say our older buildings will collapse. They say we're not prepared nearly well enough. Do THEY do anything to fix these issues? No!

    What's this got to do with charity? No idea. But, like you and some of the others, I prefer to offer my help locally. I've got a list. I do what I can. I feel good about what I do and wish I could do more. I guess that just makes me human.


  8. Alessia,

    I agree with you 100%. And, the next time you're collecting for a Coming together anthology, could you please forward me the CFS?



  9. Eyre,

    I'll have a word with student services at the college where I work and see if they have a system like that in place.

    Thanks for the suggestion.



  10. Michelle,

    You're a brave lady. I'm a huge animal lover but I'm not sure I'd have the strength to help animals in such a way personally.

    It's a privilege to be writing alongside you here.


  11. Garce,

    National Public radio sounds like a good cause. It's probably not my place to say, but if you speak anything like you write, you should be trying to get your words spoken on the radio.



  12. Jude,

    You're more than human. You're my no. 1 Canadian writing buddy :-)



  13. Well I'd hardly call you a selfish bastard. You're right, you need to fully research the charities you're giving to in order to be sure that what they're doing is something you can truly stand behind. Otherwise, you may find out something awful as you did that one time.

    You're not selfish, just cautious, and that's not a bad thing.

  14. Ashley,

    I think that your point is well-taken. Giving to a charity where you are ignorant about its goals and structure is like voting for a candidate without knowing his or her platform.


  15. Helen,

    Thank you. I was genuinely worried that someone reading this blog might just think I was uncaring and advocating a selfish attitude when it comes to charity.

    I'm looking forward to reading your take on the topic this week.


  16. Lisabet,

    AT the start of the week you said: "Every kindness, every gesture of love or support, anywhere, adds to the sum of goodness circulating in our world. We're bound into a chain of love that transcends distance."

    I think that's one of the wisest sentiments I've heard in a long time - and should be engraved on the foundations of everyone's charitable nature.




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