Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for April 2014

The Modern-Day Cult Of Attention-Seeking ‘Charity’

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WE SEEM to have forgotten what the spirit of charitable giving is all about. When I was growing up, I was taught that charity should be a private matter and was to be done for the benefit of the cause, not to boost your own ego.

Several events in the last week have left me in no doubt that our society has lost all sense of charity’s purpose and the whole essence of giving.

The makeup-free ‘selfie’ seems to follow a specific format: The woman posts a picture of herself on Facebook, with an accompanying note nominating a few friends to do the same.

Within minutes of the ‘selfie’ being posted, they get lots of Facebook ‘likes’ and uninspiring comments from friends, along the lines of, “You look really pretty, hun” and, “Aww, you’re so cute without makeup.”

They seldom offer any explanation as to why they are doing it. Is it to raise ‘awareness’ of cancer? What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Surely we are all ‘aware’ that cancer exists. Which one of the (roughly) 200 cancers are they making us ‘aware’ of? Do they want us to donate to a cancer charity? If so, which one, and why that charity in particular? They hardly ever tell us.

They’re more interested in nominating their friends to follow in their footsteps and continue this self-gratifying, pointless exercise.

It seems that many take part just to follow a trend, and as is often the case, to satisfy themselves that they’re doing something useful. ‘All my friends are doing it, therefore it must be good’ appears to be the mantra behind it, unless I’m missing something, thereby excusing them of having to think seriously about how they can make a meaningful contribution to the fight against cancer.

This absurd ‘selfie’ trend is just the latest symptom of the wider problem of today’s vain, shallow, self-obsessed culture, full of instant gratification and quick-fixes.

The sad reality is that a significant number of young, British people (especially women) never really give a moment’s thought to anything much apart from their jobs, their immediate circle of friends, and celebrity culture.

Not all, I hasten to add, but quite a few, including some who have benefitted from a university education.

By taking a makeup-free ‘selfie’, they lap up the sickly-sweet comments from their ‘friends’ and trick themselves into believing they’ve done something even remotely useful to fight cancer.

Momentum built up all through last week, reaching a crescendo on Friday evening, by which time my Facebook wall contained little else.

I vowed to stay away from Facebook for the rest of Friday night, in the interests of keeping my blood pressure under control if nothing else.

I switched on BBC One, where Sport Relief was just starting. This was barely an improvement on the Facebook situation. Same concept, different style.

I’m not much of a fan of organised fun full stop, but I’ve always had an especially intense dislike for this fundraiser, and its elder brother, Comic Relief. I can’t stand the self-indulgence of it, the forced jollity, the unfunny sketches, the free publicity it gives to washed up has-been comedians and to the BBC itself.

In this case, instead of make-up free ‘selfies’, some very wealthy celebrities were taking part in mind-numbingly dull ‘activities’ to raise money for ‘good causes’.

They might not have got paid for taking part, but this struck me as something of a cynical public relations exercise in promoting their image as caring, compassionate, selfless ‘celebs’.

At least one ‘celeb’ who featured heavily is a former colleague of mine, and I know from bitter personal experience that he does absolutely nothing unless there’s something in it for him.

Surely Coronation St on ITV would be a ‘safe’ zone. I know it’s going through a bit of a weak patch at the moment, and the storylines aren’t up to much, but surely this would give me an escape from this back-slapping tripe?
Afraid not. Very early on, Julie, an absurd character at the best of times, was thinking up charity fundraising ideas, and tried in vain to persuade Roy to give the green light for her and her work colleagues to replicate ‘Calendar Girls’.

There really was no getting away from it, so I turned the TV off. My mind harked back to a recent conversation with a friend who works in a large office.

He had a good rant to me over a pint about the compulsory ‘office collections’ that take place. This involves a member of staff, always female, always excessively cheery, going around the office when she is supposed to be working, rattling a collection tin for the latest ‘good cause’.

This doesn’t just happen from time to time. It’s at the very least a weekly occurrence, usually more.

It happens every time a member of staff has a birthday, gets pregnant, gives birth, has a Christening, gets engaged, gets married, or is ‘fundraising’ for their latest ego trip.

My friend, who has enough financial concerns of his own at the moment, rightly pointed out that he goes to work to make money, not to give it away, but feels he can’t say anything in the workplace for fear of being branded a ‘Scrooge’ or accused of not being a ‘team player’.
Even self-employed types like me who work from home can’t get away from it. I can’t remember the last time a whole week went by when I didn’t receive an email or a Facebook message demanding that I donate to someone’s latest fundraising activity.

Nearly always, the person doing the fundraising is someone I haven’t seen for at least ten years, didn’t know all that well to begin with, and probably hasn’t given me a moment’s thought for most of that time.

This is never a heart-felt, personal invitation to donate to a good cause. I only received it in the first place because I was in their email address book or Facebook ‘friends’ list, and it’s been sent to everyone in it, regardless of how little involvement they’ve ever really had with me.

There is always a sob story attached, usually about a family bereavement, and at the very least about someone who has bravely battled some horrible illness.

Look, I’m very sorry to hear about your granny dying, but I never knew her, and, in all honesty, I don’t really know you. What right have you got to try and guilt-trip me into donating to your cause?

And what has coming to work dressed as Lady Gaga or doing a ‘fun run’ in a Scooby Doo costume got to do with your departed relative anyway?

Most also seem to want me to donate online via Justgiving, a profit-making company that deducts 5% of whatever you give, along with additional credit card fees in many cases.

If they bothered to do just a little bit of research, they’d discover they’d be better off using Virgin Money Giving, where charities register with them, and they in turn charge just 2% commission on donations to cover running costs.

Ironically, I’ve had requests to donate to participants in this year’s London Marathon using Justgiving, whereas its more philanthropic rival came into being after Virgin Money became the event’s sponsor and created an easy way for people to donate.

As a society, we even seem to have lost all sense of what charity actually is.

Christopher Snowdon’s recent report for the Institute of Economic Affairs explains the extent to which the lines between charity and political lobbying have been blurred since New Labour came to power in 1997.

We have now reached the stage where 27,000 charities are dependent on the government for more than 75% of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the state than it does in voluntary donations.

This inevitably leads to charities being far more reluctant to criticise government policy. In a sense, it leads to the government lobbying itself.

They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws. Indeed, it’s hard to see how some of these organisations can be classed as ‘charities’ at all.

This newspaper, and indeed the BBC, has in recent years revealed that Comic Relief has invested money into such ‘good causes’ as alcohol, tobacco and the arms trade.

There at least 30 charity bosses earning an annual salary of more than £100,000. Harpal Kumar, the CEO of Cancer Research UK, which claims to have benefitted hugely from the ‘selfie’ trend, pockets £220,000 per year, £77,000 more than the Prime Minister receives. I wonder how many of the makeup-free posers bothered to investigate that?

I’m 30 years of age, and it was around the time that I was born that self-indulgent, celebrity-backed charity really began to take off, with Band Aid, followed a few years later by Comic Relief.

I had a Catholic education, and during my primary school years the old standards were adhered to. It was only when I went to secondary school that I was really exposed to high-visibility, noisy, public charity.

I recall a history lesson with an older, male teacher being rudely interrupted by two younger, female teachers who came barging in rattling tins to collect money for Children In Need. Our history teacher didn’t look impressed, but said nothing. It’s been downhill ever since.

To be clear, I’m certainly not anti-charity, but I’d welcome a return to the days when it was done privately, quietly, and without celebrity endorsements.

In my experience, the better-run charities are often smaller, low-key ones, free from political influence and lacking in celebrity backing.

I can think of several that are involved in worthy projects both in Britain and overseas where every effort is made to ensure that the vast majority of money raised reaches its intended cause, and one that guarantees that every penny goes straight to Africa, where it will be spent on a range of projects focusing on education, healthcare and self-help. Even the volunteers are expected to pay their own transport and living costs.

Now that’s what I call a good cause!

Written by Marcus Stead

April 1, 2014 at 5:37 am