Case 1. Sitting on Aer Lingus flight 247 to Dublin. Tape plays the usual appeal for money for the airline’s partner Unicef. As the flight attendant shambles down the aisle, a not negligible number of people fisted money into the collection envelope, including Passenger 18A, seated next to me. I couldn’t resist. After introducing myself as a charity exec, I turned to this middle-aged Irish businessman and asked why he donated. “To tell you the truth, the main reason is I know I have a lot of change in Sterling in my pocket and we’re headed for Ireland.” (Please note my magnanimity: I graciously swallowed my tongue when he asked for my opinion of the agency. So I did not suggest that his sterling coins would contribute to the salary of somebody in Geneva drafting a new clearance procedure for changes to the child-friendly space protocol or maybe another measles vaccination campaign that somehow doesn’t prevent measles from ravaging the community two years later.)
Case 2. Menswear retailer The Officers Club went into administration earlier this week. Did anyone notice? Would any of you even admit it if you did? The All Saints line of clothes stores are also in trouble. (My quality guarantee to you the reader: I have never stepped foot in one of these stores). Blame, of course, is placed squarely on the financial crisis, economic turndown, recession and the no-doubt fatal condition hidden by the jargon of “low footfall”.
Case 2 is the one that got me going. Is it really fair to blame the economy because people no longer purchase piles of overpriced made-to-fall-apart-but-even-more-quickly-goes-of-style clothing on a weekly basis? Financial meltdown might explain why people can’t wallow in sartorial narcissism, but the real problem seems to be the expectation that people would continue to buy crapola ad infinitum. The stuff in those shops had no purpose. No necessity. As for Passenger 18A, his behaviour wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Unicef or the idea of giving to a charity.
Coming more to the point (or, if that’s a bit of an exaggeration, at least orienting this piece in the general vicinity of a point), is it really the economic woes of middle England that we can blame for the fact that people are giving less money to charity? Case 3, then, is the charity fundraising sector for international aid organizations. Talk to any fundraiser and you’ll hear all about how the downturn is of course due to things beyond his/her control.
So the question drops: Are we a meaningless luxury? Is a donation to a charity somehow no more of a moral endeavour than paying £129.00 for a pair of stiletto heeled cocktail shoes? Or (less expensively) a strachiatella gelato in the caff next to the shoe store? Of course the downturn in the economy has made it difficult for some people to support us, and it has made prospective donors more reluctant to sign up, but aid agencies need to do more than blame this on the financial mess.
It comes down this: What is the nature of commitment we build with donors? Why do they give? Do we attach them to the necessity of our work? Arguably, that is not the case. Arguably, we use those starving baby images or glowing annual reports to push a different set of buttons. Namely, the instant gratification of the donor. We don’t sell the sometimes ugly help being delivered on the far end of the deal. Instead, we sell feel-good moments. That’s why people were so angry at being told not to give to Japan (see, e.g., the comments under this Felix Salmon post). We don’t sell our sweat and blood, we sell the charity business equivalent of retail therapy. And if I’m really honest, I’m not sure if I haven’t bought into it myself.