Ends and means

No, I won’t attend the next great charity fundraiser to come to town. Not because I’m anti-social (though I am), but because I’m tired of being held ransom by professional fundraising consultants, who seem to believe we all have tens of thousands of pounds sloshing around in our back pockets.

Back in the day, you might pay a steep price for a modest three-course dinner and light entertainment, followed by a fun auction, giving you the chance to bid on a decorative wall covering, signed CD or some worthless tat that made you smile.

No longer. These days you must prepare to be abused for hours on end by an extremely well-paid host who will pick a figure out of mid-air — say £25K — and spend the next half hour — or however long it takes — persuading someone to put their hand up and make the pledge.

It will not matter if that is the annual salary of half the people present. It will not matter if a family saves less than £500 at the end of each month. All that matters is that the need is massive (and it is), and it is your job, right there, right now, to respond.

These events are a travesty really. They pull people in on the promise of listening to a scholar or an artist, of hearing wondrous things and enjoying great blessings. But instead people are held ransom: that scholar, or artist, or celebrity will not appear until the reverse auction has run its course.

Until one brave soul has pledged £25K, two more £10K, ten £5K, twelve £2K, fifteen £1K, thirty £500… and well, anyone that remains has pledged what’s left — nobody is moving. The scholar or artist or celebrity will wait back stage, secure in the knowledge that nobody will leave until they have imparted their great wisdom, or intoned their cosmic lyrics, or titillated all with their fine humour.    

The needs are great — there’s no doubt about it — but these fundraising events will backfire in the end. People will just stop attending eventually, when the short-lived feel-good factor has morphed into bitter irritation. How many people, having pledged thousands in a moment of ecstatic passion, later default on their pledge, unconsciously carrying around with them a hefty debt and unintended sins?

Young people especially are being wronged by these charities. Their goodwill, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit is too often exploited by organisations that really should know better. Some land in debt upon debt. Others write grovelling emails to internet scholars, seeking advice on what to do about the promise they made in a moment of heightened emotion. The scholar, oblivious to the practices of fundraisers, responds unsympathetically: you must honour the pledge you made in full; to default is a sin; and don’t make such a promise like this ever again.

But how else do charities raise much needed funds, petitions the devout supporter? The need is just so great, the cause just so massive: we act not for ourselves, but for the poor, the wretched and vulnerable. For refugees, orphans, mothers in need, the starving, the homeless, the unfortunate.

All of that is true. The need is indeed massive. And as believers we are charged with helping those less fortunate than ourselves. To give water to the thirsty. To clothe those with no possessions. To house those who have no shelter. Charitable deeds are essential to faith. But so are ethics.

Demanding money from people who do not have it and pushing them into debt is neither condoned nor encouraged on this path of ours. Using scholars and celebrities to pull in the crowds — selling religion, some might say — verges on idolatry. All is not well in the land of the professional fundraiser.

Spend of your wealth on the poor and needy, on the wayfarer and indignant, yes; dig deep, give and be generous. But be prepared to look deep within, to search your soul. Be prepared to take yourself to task. Be prepared to check your intentions, and to measure your actions against the best of measures.

Our charities do immeasurable good and deserve our support. But, as we all know, charity comes in many forms, be it a good deed or a kindly word.

“And your smiling in the face of your brother is charity, your removing of stones and thorns from people’s paths is charity, and your guiding a man gone astray in the world is charity for you.”

Perhaps a word of advice to our professional fundraisers might be considered a charity too. Perhaps a moment to pause and ponder might bring about greater blessings and greater bounty. Perhaps a greater emphasis on the ethics of asking and taking might result in more lasting change and better outcomes for all.

We will still give when we are asked to. We will be generous and kind. We will answer the one who calls. But it will be with willingness and sound intentions, not as capitulation to the high-pressure tactics of the purveyors of emotional blackmail. I hope the latter will soon depart.

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