It is a sound that makes your stomach clench with guilt as you walk down the street; the jangling of a charity collection box. We all know that we should be donating money to noble causes, but charitable giving can become a thorny issue. It is a concern that is currently in the forefront of the media glare, with the past week seeing celebrities getting funny for money in the name of Comic Relief and heightened fundraising efforts to provide relief for Japan. We have to ask, however, just where our money is going and how we can best help those in real need.
Concerns are frequently raised about the way in which money is spent by charities, with criticisms levelled at larger charities in particular for spending too great a proportion of their income on administration. Oxfam, for example, spent £78.5m of its £318m income last year on income generation and governance, while Cancer Research UK used roughly 28% of its annual income for these purposes. While these costs are required to be transparent and are available to the general public through the Charity Commission, the figures can seem high and might make people think twice about giving.
Such administration costs, however, are unavoidable and it is arguably the investment of these charities in future income generation that ensures a steady flow of money. Further investigation of the Charity Commission website actually reveals that some smaller charities spend a larger overall proportion of their income on administration costs than the high profile organisations which bear the brunt of the criticism. To use a local example, the Wessex Children’s Hospice Trust receives a fraction of the income of charities such as Oxfam or Cancer Research UK, reporting an annual income of £7.87m last year, but its proportion of spending on income generation and governance is at a similar level of around 26%.
With this plethora of confusing numbers and such a vast selection of charities competing for our money, charitable giving can be a bewildering experience. Should we be donating our cash to well known organisations or supporting smaller, lower profile charities? This is a question asked each year by the University’s Raise and Give (RAG) committee when deciding which charities to lend their support to. The committee choose one local, one national and one international charity to which the funds raised by RAG’s appeals throughout the year are equally donated.
‘Our local charity this year was partly selected because they have very limited income and have been affected by the economic recession,’ RAG officer Grace Allingham explains. ‘The money we give to them at the end of the year may well double their usual income, and so here it will probably be more directly helpful than giving to a large charity with more income sources’.
One obstacle faced by smaller charities is the danger of the emergence of a ‘hierarchy of giving’, with certain organisations receiving more media attention and consequently more donations. While any media exposure for charities is undoubtedly a good thing, the emphasis on some causes and neglecting of others runs the risk of creating an impression that certain charities are more deserving of our money. As Allingham notes, ‘there is an overwhelming sense that some lives are considered to be worth more than others’.
Another area of contention is the growing trend for volunteering abroad, with many students and young people choosing to do charity work during their gap year. There is no doubt that this is an encouraging fashion, but the efforts – and money – of volunteers may be better focused elsewhere. The money paid on flights and other costs, particularly when volunteering through placement companies, might be better spent going directly to the source and enabling locals to do the same work. A two week teaching placement in Zambia with Kaya Responsible Travel, for example, carries a price tag of £995 not including flights, which appears to be typical of similar placement companies.
While believing that it is important, Allingham has some doubts about the value of gap year volunteering, saying that ‘young people are sold an adventure and told they are going to be doing something wonderful to help those less fortunate. In reality they may be paying through the nose to work for free, when there is a better trained local who would rather be doing the job. Ultimately, the most valuable thing we have as privileged westerners is our money. Volunteering overseas is important, but the attitude that we are inherently superior and can do a job better simply by virtue of our background is damaging and misleading.’
The best way for budding charity volunteers to get involved may actually be a lot closer to home. There are many opportunities to do charity work in the Southampton area through organisations such as Student Community Action, a joint initiative between Careers Destinations and SUSU that gets students involved in local volunteering projects. The advantage of this work, argues Allingham, is that ‘here you can really use your individual skills and experience to be useful, rather than just your money and white skin’.
The other recent charity boom is in the increased number of sponsored activities, with websites such as Just Giving and Virgin Money transforming the sponsorship process. Whereas fundraisers previously had to trundle from door to door begging sponsors to sign up, it is now a simple process of setting up an online sponsorship page, not to mention eliminating the hassle of chasing up missing donations. This does not come without a slight catch, however; JustGiving, for example, takes 5% out of the Gift Aid it reclaims and charges a £15 monthly membership fee. Nevertheless, such services have facilitated much greater fundraising efforts than were previously possible, with JustGiving stating on their website that they have helped various charities to raise around £770m in total since their conception in 2000.
It is impossible to create a foolproof guidebook of dos and don’ts when it comes to charitable giving and ultimately how each person donates their money is deeply subjective. The reasons for giving money to charity are many and varied and people often support certain charities because of personal connections, making any attempt to classify one charity as more worthy than another both pointless and damaging. It is, however, rarely as simple as just giving and it is vital to be savvy about where every penny is going.
Elections for the new RAG committee will be taking place on 30 March at 5pm in Meeting Room 2. Anyone wanting to find out more about RAG and how to get involved can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website: www.susu.org.uk/rag.