Why I don’t give to big charities

Giving is good for you, everyone agrees. Indeed there is a lot to be said for the practice of tithing one’s income, for those who can afford it. I am lucky in that respect. In fact I consider myself quite affluent though I am certainly not wealthy.

I define affluence as the state in which your income comfortably covers your expenditure, you have no debts, and you do not have to worry about whether or not your morning post contains a bill. There are obviously two ways to achieve this happy condition: you can either acquire a lot of money or you can reduce your perceived needs. I have taken the second course.

Like many of my generation, I own my house outright, so I pay neither rent nor mortgage, and I live in a suburban environment in which I do not actually need to run a car. I don’t visit theatres, cinemas, gymns or restaurants, or buy DVDs or games or fashionable clothes. I have found plenty of other ways to enjoy myself which don’t cost money.

As an affluent person therefore, I can afford to give reasonable amounts to charities of my choice. But I do not, on principle, give money to any of the big, well-known charities. The reason I do not do it is that I strongly disapprove of the methods they use to extract money from supporters, methods which I do not wish to encourage by rewarding them.

Adam Smith once envisioned a capitalist paradise in which competition for customers would drive producers to produce ever better products at ever lower prices. However in practice, capitalism is just as often a race to the bottom as to the top. Companies can and do compete by reducing wages (by moving their production to developing countries) and by using clever advertising to induce people to buy products which are often neither cheap nor of good quality.

Charities have no product to sell but they are still in competition with other companies (including other charities) for an essentially static pot of consumers’ money. Big charities also have big overheads which have to be paid for somehow. As they cannot improve their product, they have no alternative but constantly to intensify their advertising campaigns. The aim is to shock, upset, and ideally to induce guilt in those into whose hands this advertising falls, to motivate them to pay up.

If you do send them money, you will receive a steady stream of further demands from that particular charity for months afterwards. They also seem to maintain a “suckers’ list”, much as scammers are said to do, so that when you have given to one big charity, you mysteriously start receiving junk mail from several others. Then there is the practice known as charity mugging — buttonholing people on the street and pestering them to sign up to a monthly direct debit agreement.

Another trick is to send unsolicited gifts which you then feel you have to pay for or feel guilty ever after. The best way to deal with this is to tell yourself firmly that if they can afford to give these things away, they obviously do not need your money. I think a lot of other people must have taken this course because the practice is less common now than it was.

I find all these practices thoroughly unethical and none the less so because it's “all in a good cause”. I feel that writing a cheque to get rid of the guilt feelings which have been deliberately induced in me would make me complicit in the offence. I would in effect be rewarding them for manipulating my emotions, and that is something I do not want to do.

I also feel dubious about the increasingly common practice of giving people as “presents” a certificate stating that someone in a developing country has received a cow or half a dozen ducks. A gift to charity should not consist of money that you have to spend anyway because it’s someone’s birthday. When you do that, you are just buying a nice, warm, fuzzy glow at that person’s expense. He or she has not made a willing contribution but has been deprived of a material gift that was expected, and then has to pretend not to be disappointed.

While all this is going on, there are a lot of really good small charities that don’t do any of these things because they can’t afford to pay for any kind of advertising at all. Yet they are often doing useful work that deserves support at least as much as the likes of Oxfam or Cancer Research UK. And when you give to them, you have the satisfaction of knowing that none of your money is being spent on manipulative advertisements

I support my local hospice and my local food bank. I support a small Christian group in Watford called New Hope which has an excellent record of getting people off the streets and reintegrating them into society. I support ZANE, which funnels aid directly and personally to impoverished victims of Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe, often working under the radar so that not a penny goes in bribes to corrupt officials (I often wonder how many development charities can make that boast).

The only well-known charity that I contribute to on a regular basis is Medecins Sans Frontieres. I make an exception for them because I greatly admire the heroism of their workers. These are the doctors and nurses who go into war zones to treat the wounded just when the big aid organisations are pulling their people out because it has become too dangerous.

The big charities, when asked about their advertising practices, often justify them by pointing out that these advertisements usually bring in more money than they cost. That may well be so. But I don't want my money to be spent on that kind of thing. Cost-effectiveness is not the only thing that counts. There is also such a thing as morality!

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