Saturday, 29 March 2014

Charity and Giving Part 1: Sponsored Events

Those who know me are aware of an apparent glitch in what can most generously be referred to as my mental workings.  It is around the concept of sponsored events.  In school, and through the churches I went to as a child, I ended up doing sponsored walks and sponsored silences and sponsored fasts.  Money was raised and given to charities, and everything was fine and dandy.

Then a few years ago, I had some sort of neurological blue-screen, or possibly an epiphany depending on which way you want to look at it, and realised that the very concept not only doesn’t make sense, but may even be personally harmful from a spiritual point of view.

“Children are starving in Africa”, a hypothetical person says to me (hypothetically).  “I’m going to walk 20 miles to raise money for them.”


“Why?  Because children are starving, and the money will be used to buy food and medical supplies and things.”

“No, I mean why are you walking 20 miles?”

“To raise money.”


“What do you mean?”

“I mean, children are starving in Africa, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Well that’s terrible, I will most certainly donate money to help.”


“But why are you walking twenty miles?”

“Um… to raise money.”

“So I should pay you to walk 20 miles, and you’ll then give the money to starving children?”

“That’s right.”

“So what is it that I’m paying for?”

“You’re… uh… paying for me to walk 20 miles.  It’ll be really hard and tiring.  I’ll get blisters.”

“So you’re undergoing an arduous experience, in exchange for my giving to charity?”


“Why don’t I just give the money to the starving children, since they so obviously need it, and save you the bother?”

“Oh, um, well…”

Do you see my problem?  If my hypothetical friend was selling cakes, and donating the money to charity, that would make more sense.  If it was a bob-a-job style arrangement wherein people paid for work, and that money was then passed on, that would be fine.   But the concept of sponsored walks and fasts and silences is a bizarre leap of logic that I have become unable to take.  However, it is so firmly embedded in our culture that to take this position makes me look like a miser at best, and an uncaring, cynical ogre at worst.  Also, it is undeniable that because they are so entrenched, they are very good at raising money for good causes.

It has been argued that it is done to raise awareness.  “Look at that chap!  He’s walking 20 miles.  That’s a curious thing to do.  Ah, turns out that the children in Africa are starving, and that’s why he’s doing it!”  Ok then, but you could just tell me.  Knowing that children are suffering unnecessarily should surely be enough for anyone, without a long walk required.  Perhaps it’s all a diabolical conspiracy by shoemakers?

Beyond their nonsensicality, my main objection to them is more theological; I can’t help but feel that the injunction in Matthew 6 to keep our charitable giving top secret is burst wide open by the naturally and necessarily public nature of a sponsored event.  In most cases, I am sure that self-publicity is no part of a person’s motivation.  Even so, they are seen to be doing good works, and even if it’s no part of their motivation, will end up being publically praised. 

In other cases, I know for a fact that it is almost the entire motivation.  There is such a thing as Event Marketing, in which a company attaches itself symbiotically to a charity or charitable event, and helps raise money.  The purpose of this is solely to generate positive publicity and increase sales.  The company’s employees might well believe in the cause involved, but ultimately the company wouldn’t support it unless they know they’re getting something out of it themselves.  I used to work for a major supermarket chain, who every year would be very publically involved in a high profile national charity event.  They would have posters and advertising splashed up everywhere, and make sure that everybody knew what a wonderful, caring company they were; the kind of company from whom you’d want to buy.

I flatly refused to have anything to do with it, or any of the events that were organised in-store to support it.  Nobody asked me why, but I was ready with logical arguments and biblical quotations in case they did.

It has been pointed out, quite correctly, that surely in this case it is the ends, not the means that matters.  If people can be persuaded to support good causes in exchange for someone sitting in a bath of baked beans for seven hours, then that’s just as good as if they just gave their money anyway, and they are more likely to do so.  Well… yes, but I can’t help but feel that they shouldn’t.  You shouldn’t require another person to undertake some random and unrelated act in order to be chivvied into giving money to a self-evidentially noble cause.  I strongly believe that motivations matter, and will be taken into account, as much as the end result, and I can’t help but feel that my giving an amount of money to feed starving children, because I’ve heard of their plight and want to help is inherently better than being persuaded to give money because someone else is going on a hike.

But I’m not certain, and if it’s true (depressing thought though it is) that people can only be persuaded to give to good causes under these circumstances, then it’s infinitely better than not giving at all.

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