I had a letter the other day from the boss of the British Red Cross, begging me to send him a quarter of my daily income for some people in Syria.
It was a very pleasant letter, polite and well-written, and although it was deliberately constructed to try to tug at my heart strings with an anecdote about a baby “screaming in pain” from getting hit by crossfire, it made me think that I ought to send Mark Adamson, the charity’s chief executive, the £25 he was pleading for.
And although, on his basic salary of £170,000, Mr Adamson earns more than 11 times what I do, I almost sent him the cash.
But I didn’t because of three things that put me off. One was his closing line – “it’s easy for you to make a difference” – which got my goat, because it isn’t “easy” for me to go without twenty five quid, that would be a struggle.
The second thing was that I thought this sort of letter had been banned. I thought that charities were not allowed to send begging letters to elderly people anymore, I thought that the Fundraising Regulator had outlawed that lark after the tragedy of poor Olive Clarke, the Bristol lady who killed herself after feeling overwhelmed by requests from many of the 99 charities who had her details on their files.
But it seems I was wrong. Apparently this sort of begging is still allowed if a charity anonymises its letter, i.e. in the Red Cross case, by addressing it “Dear Reader” instead of Dear Geoff or Dear Mr Baker.
So that’s alright then; the fact that the letter came through my door with my post and that I therefore read it in no way indicates that it was aimed personally at me, it could have been intended for any of many people who don’t live at my address.
But the third and main reason why Mr Adamson’s pleading has fallen on my deaf ear is because this practice is not right. It may be entirely legal and allowed, but it’s wrong to pressure people’s consciences without knowing whether they can afford to give away money that they were saving for paying essential bills.
It is also wrong because ideally charities should not exist. In a properly-run society there would be no need for Cancer Research UK or the RNLI or Save The Children, because the funding that the charities desperately need would be provided by the state.
Moral philosophers have long determined that the mark of any state’s civilisation is the extent to which it looks after its most disadvantaged. The fact that there are some 185,000 registered charities in the UK, with the number rising by 5,000 each year, indicates to me that we are not very civilised; we, the public, are doing the work that ought to be done by the state.
But clearly no government is going to eagerly action a reversal of that, because the current way saves them money. If Children In Need can raise £60 million for little tackers who are crying out for help then the Treasury must be rubbing its hands with glee, because that’s saving £60 million that by rights it ought to be spending.
No, a conscience tax – and that’s what charity is – suits the Exchequer very nicely. Ching! Every time we put a quid, or seemingly in the Red Cross’s case £25, in a collection tin we are lessening the need for any government to do its moral duty.
I’m also a bit bothered by what appears to constitute a charity these days. According to the dictionary, a charity is defined as “an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need”.
That sounds a bit vague, in need of what? In need of actual help so that its pitiful beneficiaries can actually not starve or, as a more cynical friend of mine put it, “in need to being able to run itself more efficiently”?
I can see the sound reasoning behind Cancer Research UK needing money, it is trying to help people live. I can see the same qualification for charitable status applying to Oxfam and the Royal British Legion, both are helping people who would ordinarily be understood to be needy.
But what about the Royal Opera House, charity number 211775, in what way is it actually helping the needy? Does it send out divas to perform arias for the homeless who might prefer to have a hot meal?
According to the website of the opera charity which paid its musical director more than £737,000 in salary and fees in 2015, “every shoe, sequin, orchestral part and lighting gel comes at a price. And without skilled footwear supervisors, workroom managers, armourers, music librarians, stage managers and technicians, no production would reach the stage. That’s why the £26 million you contribute each year, through donations small and large, is so important.”
To me that sounds a bit like saying “your donations help us do our job properly”. Is that helping the actual needy?
As we approach Christmas I expect to get more letters like Mark Adamson’s coming through my letterbox purposefully addressed to nobody in particular. Like the late and tragic Olive Clarke, I will read them, worry about whether I should be giving to them and whether I’m a bad person if I don’t. Perhaps I really ought to be funding the desperately-needed sequinning of Rigoletto, I don’t know.
But each to his own. We’ll all be begged to give, give, give this Christmas and although I dearly hope that the pressure of that will not drive any others to Olive Clarke’s sad fate, it’s a personal decision.
I’ll probably be putting whatever little I can afford in the tin of the Salvation Army. Its chief executive is paid around £10,500 a year, which, in my interpretation of charity, is a lot more like it.