We have a strange relationship with charity in this country. We depend on it enormously – to the tune of £19bn in income from individuals every year.
This is a sector of industrial proportions, which the Charity Commission estimates has a total income of over £60bn a year and employs over 800,000 people. Yet we still apply antiquated thinking in our dealings with it.
We can’t quite make up our minds whether we want everything to be run like a village fête or a public company. But demographic and economic challenges mean the UK is going to need charity even more in the future. We also have to face the reality that the younger generation will be less able to give and is harder to engage.
So, bashing celebrities who do their bit for charities is really not sound. Since when is everyone’s support for causes motivated by purely altruistic feelings? With the exception of those recycling ill-gotten gains, I have never really cared why someone is helping a charity. Frankly, I’m grateful they’re doing it in the first place. Of course, it would be nice if every time it was just for that warm glow of having made the world a little bit better, but let’s stop being naive.
We also have a strange relationship with celebrities. We think we can call on them to do good whenever we want. In twenty-five years of working with charities, I’ve never assumed that celebrities are available on demand for any charity and at no cost. Let’s also not kid ourselves: we know why we want the celebrity there. They help us get more people in the room and raise considerably more money.
If there is an expense involved to enable that celebrity to front our appeal, we factor that in too. In approaching celebrity agents, I have always taken the view that their clients have their pet causes and they’re not about to give up their time free for mine. So I’ve offered to pay half their appearance fee and it’s worked, with the return on that investment handsomely repaid every time. A first-class plane ticket costs a lot less than the fees our charity clients have sometimes paid and those investments undoubtedly paid off for the causes in question.
This weekend’s outburst over the content of the hacked emails is misplaced. Yes, the language used in them is unpleasant, but that’s not the point. What is the point, in my view, is our rush to damn someone whose commitment to charity is exemplary.
Every year, the Sunday Times produces a Giving List, which tracks the philanthropy of more than 300 of those who feature in its Rich List. In 2015, the Beckhams are listed at £7m or 2.92% of their wealth. That percentage is well ahead of many far more financially able and well-known members of our society. And it should be celebrated, because they didn’t have to do it.
Our curious relationship with charity also includes embarrassment over the opportunities to celebrate those who make a difference. Being British, we think it too vulgar. Rather people should give quietly and be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Our American cousins take a somewhat more pragmatic approach and look for every opportunity to acknowledge a donor’s support. That’s why fundraising in America is so successful, quite apart from the arguments over tax incentives. They have a culture that’s all about giving back and having that acknowledged. There are name plaques on everything possible. Each year, they publish league tables of the biggest philanthropists. Imagine that, people competing to give as much charity as possible to get into the top 10!
Maybe we’ll never reach that point here, but if we want more from those who have much more to give (and we sure as hell need them to), we need to engender a climate with a stronger celebration of giving. Let’s focus on raising the money to help solve the social problems rather than carping about those who are doing their bit and deserve acknowledgement for that. More honours to recognise the significant contribution made is absolutely the way to go.