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Three Scenes From Charity Life

Daily Telegraph
December 2006

Here are three scenes from charity life.

Scene One (an office building in Liverpool):
An elderly man, dressed neatly but rather shabbily, walks into the building and tells the girl at the desk he wants to make a donation to a little charity he read about in the paper. He hands over a brown envelope, refuses to give a name or fill in a Gift Aid form and walks out again. When they open the envelope it contains £1,000 in used notes.

Scene Two (the board room of one of Britain’s best-known charities):
The chief executive and his young marketing director discuss their latest fundraising campaign. It will cost many thousands of pounds but they agree they have no choice if they want to maintain their profile.

Scene Three (an office somewhere in Whitehall):
A committee made up of senior civil servants and advisers considers appeals from several of the biggest charities in the country. The charities will not be disappointed. There is a lot of money in the kitty.

These are not imaginary scenarios. My own small charity was the beneficiary of the old man’s generosity. I know nothing about him. Maybe he’s an international drug dealer in disguise, laundering his ill-gotten gains. More likely, he’s a thrifty old gent reaching the end of his days who has all he needs for his modest life and wants to do a little good with the money he has saved. But he hates fuss and needs no thanks.

I am also familiar with Scene Two. I once served on the board of one of our biggest charities and I know how difficult and expensive it can be to keep the cash flowing in.

And I know about Scene Three thanks to some important research by Richard Smith and Philip Whittington published in a pamphlet by the Centre for Policy Studies. What it reveals is that something slightly worrying is happening to the charity industry in this country.

I use the word ‘industry’ advisedly. Charities employ nearly 600,000 paid workers and another 3m volunteers. The value of that unpaid work has been put at more than £15bn. The charities’ income has risen sharply in the past few years and is now more than £26bn. There are 6,000 new charities registered every year.

So what’s worrying about that? The statistics surely tell a story of unqualified success – a tribute to the generosity of this great nation. Well, yes and no.

There are certainly generous people. The odds are, dear reader, that you are one of them. The results of fundraising appeals suggests that the readers of this newspaper give more to good causes than any other. But your generosity is dwarfed by one donor in particular, which explains Scene Three. The really big donor is the government.

State funding now accounts for a bigger slice of the total income of British charities than voluntary donations – and by a hefty margin. This raises serious – and in some ways troubling – questions. First, though, the positive side.

Charities tend to spend money more efficiently than governments and there is less risk of corruption. If the government gives a million to Save the Children or Christian Aid it’s not likely to end up in an African politician’s Swiss bank account or paying for a container full of AK 47s and rocket launchers. And the best of the charities know where the greatest need is. They employ some extraordinarily dedicated people who devote their lives to helping others.

But charitable donations are like chopping wood. When you split logs you get the exercise from doing it and the warmth when you burn the wood. And there are multiple benefits from helping charities. Jemima Khan told Easy Living magazine this week that she is filled with guilt over her immense wealth and that’s the reason she does charity work.

So the donor benefits; the charity gets the cash and the fabric of society is strengthened as well. Sociologists have proved over and over again what is patently obvious. A community is stronger if its people are involved in helping others.

The danger of government taking over the responsibility for funding charities is that we end up feeling we needn’t bother. True, it’s still our money that is given (why do we persist in talking about ‘government money’ when there’s no such thing?) but it is no longer our decision. It is made for us.

And most of that money goes to the big charities. The biggest 500 get 35 per cent. of their income from the state compared with 29 per cent. from the general public. They’d be in serious trouble without it. They’re spending more and more money on fundraising and marketing - not far short of £500m in the past three years. The CPS research suggests that it is costing them almost £2 for every extra £1 they raise.

The charities argue that it’s not that simple and money spent on publicity has long-term benefits too, but it seems the public is not convinced. A MORI poll showed that only 10 per cent. of the people they asked agreed with this statement: “When I give money to charity, I feel confident that most of it will go directly to the cause”. That’s not because they don’t trust charities – an overwhelming majority do – but other surveys suggest they trust small charities more.

Partly that’s because most people seem to want their hard-earned donations spent directly to alleviate suffering rather than on campaigns. The RSPCA spent a lot of money campaigning against fox hunting and the NSPCC did the same trying to persuade us to stop hitting our children. There’s also some resistance to what the CPS calls the increasingly ‘corporate style’ of charity. The average top salary at large charities is now £83,000.

You can see why they do it. Competition between the big charities is fiercer than it’s ever been and they want the best people. But with all that lobbying and rebranding and marketing going on, someone is bound to get squeezed. That someone is the small charity – and this is where I have to declare my interest.

My charity is called the Kitchen Table Charities Trust (KTCT) and it’s just over a year old. It may seem mad to add one more to the 160,000 charities already registered in this country but most of them struggle desperately to stay afloat and what the KTCT does is throw some of them a lifebelt.

They are so small they can scarcely afford the kitchen table at which most of them were born, let alone a team of fundraisers and swanky offices to impress corporate fat cats. But they don’t half pack a big punch.

What prompted me to get involved was the death of my father. He left me a small legacy and I wanted it to go to a cause close to his heart. He’d lost his sight when he was a child, never properly recovered it and never had a decent education. He would have loved to think his money had helped some of the world’s poorest and disabled children.

I went to Tanzania – a desperately poor country that’s beginning to get its act together – intending to set up a residential school for orphans. God knows there are plenty of them, mostly thanks to AIDS. But it was a silly idea – if only because there were already so many people with vastly more knowledge of what was needed than me and who were already doing remarkable things. What they did not have was enough money. The one thing I reckoned I might be better at than them was raising it.

Willie Fulton is a retired businessman from Merseyside. He and his wife Gail are shining examples of the many British people who have set up and run tiny charities in poor countries. Theirs, the Mango Tree, cares for orphans in Tanzania. They don’t plonk them in institutions. They give them the help they need to stay in their villages and go to school – which is better for the community and much better for the children.

It costs a derisory £4 for two uniforms and a few pens and exercise books, without which the child cannot go to primary school. It’s almost embarrassing to think you can change a life for the price of a bottle of plonk. The KTCT has helped the Mango Tree and they’re now starting up another orphan support programme in Kenya.

I like to think we’ve made a real difference in just a year. We have funded micro-banks, those wonderful institutions that typically lend widows a few pounds to buy a sewing machine and set up a tiny business.

We’ve paid for a workshop where men with polio are taught to make children’s toys so they no longer need to beg to support their families.

We’ve helped charities that take orphaned children off the streets of big cities, give them a bed, an education and a bit of love. We’ve given villages a decent water supply and village schools decent sanitation. I’ve become a bit of an expert on lavatories that need no water. I recommend (no kidding) the Blair Toilet: guaranteed to leave no nasty smells.

We’ve paid for a new ward in a charity hospital in Dar es Salaam where no-one is turned away – even if they can’t afford the few pounds for an operation to remove their cataracts. I wish my father had been with me when I watched a rickety old bus bringing blind people from their villages to the CCBRT hospital and taking them back a few days later able to see.

What we haven’t done is spend any money on administration. The excellent Liverpool Council for Social Services got us registered and keeps our accounts for a modest sum and that’s it. No salaries, no offices, no overheads. And no money from the government.

John Humphrys