Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Charity begins...

I just heard on Radio 4 that the BBC appeal at Xmas last year, with St Martin's, raised more money than ever before. And Comic Relief raised record amounts - when we are in the midst of a very difficult economic period (with a further recession predicted).

So are people giving more, even though funds are tighter and the cost of living is rising in excess of most peoples' pay rises (if they are lucky enough to have one)?

I'm not sure. I think people are still giving, but giving more selectively. Third Sector magazine, which reports on the not for profit world, says that anecdotally that 'people are saying that things are getting tougher' (which is really no surprise). The UK's largest fundraising charity this year has reported a fall in voluntary income.   So how do we match record figures for appeals like Comic Relief against falling income for many charities?

In recent years we have had some awful international disasters - floods, famine, tsunamis... and the great British public has responded generously and speedily.  I personally think that people like to give to something they feel they can make a difference to now. Investing in medical research, conservation or third world development has tremendous long term impact, but it's the emotive 'quick fix' fundraising appeal that is giving people the feeling they want when they give. Our instant gratification society - something will happen, quickly, as a result of their gift:

My £2 a month will feed that dog. My £20 now will provide a tent and clean water for the refugees from the flood.  My £5 will buy a goat for a farmer in Africa.

So how does Comic Relief fit in? In this case, I feel it's about the ask being immediate. We are doing it 'once', and 'now', and responding to emotive issues within the context of entertainment and appeals from those who command our respect (well, so I understand celebrity appeal to be, though it's not what floats my boat).

Comic Relief is a 'quick fix' charity ask. The quickness being that it is a very time limited appeal (though fundraising goes on all year, it does have this one day annual highlight), and that the maximum interaction with donors and supporters is focused around a short time period.

So are people giving more, or not giving more? Are people cutting their charitable giving, or not?  In recent months charities have seen a decline in direct debit giving, probably a result of financial reviewing as times get harder.  Rather than have an automatic gift going out each month to one or more charities, individuals are giving as and when the appeal appeals to them. The 'now'.

The other main reason that some charities may actually be growing in income (the smaller ones are benefiting more than the larger ones), is association. Direct association with a cause will give you dedicated, long-term supporters who will continue to support your cause even during difficult times. Whether the association is through experience (for example, a disease or condition) or a passion (eg conservation or education), the stronger someone feels about something, the more likely they are to continue their support even when it is financially challenging.

So who is giving? Are the rich rallying round in these tough times and supporting charities more? Especially given the tax breaks that high earners get by donating to charity?

Interestingly, it is those with lower incomes who give the most (percentage wise) of what they earn to charities. These people are probably those who watch Comic Relief, and receive appeals from charities through the post on a regular basis.

The other area where charitable giving is getting stronger is through active and challenge fundraising. For example, doing a charity parachute jump, a walk, marathon or mountain climb. The strength of appeal in this area is that the individual gets something for their efforts (realisation of an ambition or meeting a personal challenge) and they can engage supporters around them to contribute without any further expectation from them. It's easy to donate to a friend doing an event - you just sponsor them, give them the money. You don't even have to engage with the charity that is being supported, just with your friend the fundraiser.  Given these hard times, I can see the logic for this mode of fundraising to be increasing in popularity. Everyone is a winner (in most cases!).

There are 161,669 charities registered in England. What do you support? Who do you support - a charity in your neighbourhood, or a cause you believe in? Something that you have a long term commitment to, or do you just respond as and when asked?

These are just my thoughts, from both working in the sector and as a donor myself.  I would like to know what you think.

Useful links:

Third Sector
Charities Commission
Comic Relief
The Big Give - make your donation to charity worth double
Charity Challenges (one of the many companies)
Chronicle of Philanthropy - what happens in the US usually follows on in the UK

Photograph courtesy of Alzheimer's Research UK

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The village where I work is not that huge, but there are some lovely houses. And around the houses, gardens, and in the gardens, trees.

In one garden is a huge sycamore - bare but for clusters of seeds at the end of thin twigs. I stood and watched half a dozen squirrels hopping about the lawn, diligently digging around in the leaf litter on a wet green lawn for winter snacks.

I could hear the sound of the seeds falling from the trees - and some of these spinning jennies hit me as I stood quietly watching these industrious little rodents. Cute simply by dint of a fluffy tail and their boldness (but otherwise no more than a pretty tree rat).

Enchanted as I was with this family of Sciuridae, I looked up to see the branches silhouetted against a dull grey sky. And saw that the seeds descending upon me were not victims of natural autumn fall, but rejects from more of the family, balanced acrobatically right above my head.  

AFter about five minutes of simply standing watching the squirrels, I decided to move on. A car had pulled up at the side of the road. 'Three squirrels' said one emerging occupant as she looked up at the tree to see what I had been watching. 'Eleven of them'. I added - for that's how many I'd counted on the ground and in the tree.

I may try some photographs tomorrow - they were posing so perfectly. And there's still a few seeds left on the tree.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crocs in the Fens

The other night I helped out at a tasting evening at Johnsons of Old Hurst. Through a friend of a friend, I ended up manning a stall selling sloe gin, sloe whiskey, sloe vodka,sloe brandy, cherry brandy and damson brandy. Being a person of timeliness most of the time, I turned up early. Way too early. I fell asleep in the car in the late evening sunshine listening to Radio 4 and watching crows on the fence debating whether a toy tractor in the kids yard was a good place to poop or not.

I didn't snooze for long though, my phone woke me with a start. My friend C1 was not far away in Huntingdon. I had an hour and a half before my new-found colleague from Sloe Motion arrived, so she drove up to join me and we headed to the cafe for a hot chocolate. But there was a large modern barn, with a glass side, next to the cafe. And a sign that said 'to the crocodiles'. Who could resist? Sure enough, there were four crocs in or by the pool. You can see a video of them on Youtube.

The farm was in the middle of a building project, there were builders and farm workers running around everywhere. Though the cafe was actually closed, a nice young lady let us have our hot chocolates and I enquired whether the tasting event was to be held in the cafe that evening. No, she replied, she was preparing to feed all the builders. The tasting evening was taking place in the new build outside - which wasn't finished.

Amazingly enough, they did get the building finished enough to run the event. A horseshoe shaped series of barns linked together with exit into the farm shop (stocked with fresh meat, veg and a whole host of wonderful tasty delicatessen type goodies). My new colleague arrived and C1 waved farewell, wishing me luck.

After a thorough briefing on the making of sloe gin, the farm where it's grown and the history of  the drink, I was ready! Thankfully the barn was just about ready too, with a cardboard door to prevent egress without visiting the farm shop.

The farm staff were really friendly and helpful, and I think Sloe Motion were the only third party supplier there. As seven thirty approached, the queue began. And it was a huge queue! Steadily from 7.30 to 9.45 a non-stop stream of general public entered through one end of the barn and tasted their way down sausages, pork pies, multiple cheeses and fruit concoctions to eventually finish their session off with a quick slug of sloe gin (or whisky etc). Of the two hundred or more people who paraded through the tasting alley, I was amazed to bump into two people I knew. Yes, out there in the Fens, nowhere near my usual territory at all. One was the son of my ex next door neighbour, the other a nurse I had previously worked with. They both recognised me (not I them) 'by the earrings', Julie said. Hmm... I am known for my dangly earrings when I remember to wear them.

Generally the evening was a great success with the farm shop doing brisk business and lots of complimentary comments on the various comestibles. As the general public thinned and the tables were bare but for crumbs of their delicacies, we tidied up and chatted. The farmer and his family were very friendly and mostly wore US Western gear. I fit right in with my Arizona cowboy boots!

After I had packed up, I went into the shop and bought some lovely veg and was very kindly given a present of some sausages by the farmer. That was really kind! And, of course, they tasted delicious. They weren't crocodile sausages, but you will be able to buy crocodile meat from him soon.

Photo courtsey of National Geographic

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Are celebrities ashamed?

I have worked in the charity sector for some time and often used this resource 'Look to the Stars' which tells you which charities celebrities support, and which charities are supported by which celebrities.  It's useful when you are researching someone to see if they support a charity like yours, or have a particular interest.  And also interesting if you just like finding out about celebrities.

Annie Lennox supports more
than 30 different charities
When I looked at education, cancer, environment and child related charities the numbers of celebrity supporters ranged from 85-115. Yes, a big charity with a wide emotive appeal may have more than a hundred celebrities who are prepared to put their name down next to that charity and offer support in whatever way they can. Sometimes it's just a name on a list or attending a function, sometimes it's full fledged fundraising or financial support. Most of the time it falls somewhere in between.

When you look on the site and find out how many celebrities have nailed their colours to the mast of Alzheimer's - you get ten. Just ten. Yet dementia is one of the most pressing issues in the western world. So my question 'are celebrities ashamed?' is a valid one.  Are they not willing to put their name to a charity that deals with addressing a challenge that very possibly faces us all? At least 50% of the UK population know or have a relative with dementia, and something like one in three over 65 will die with a dementia related illness over the next thirty years. So why aren't there more high profile individuals who support research and care for dementia?  I don't suppose any celebrities will pipe up and respond to my question.

My thoughts are - and these are just my personal thoughts - that they are if not ashamed, perhaps embarrassed. I think most people have a cautious reaction to dementia because the symptoms manifest in behaviour change. Dementia patients are very often fit and healthy - yet their behaviour and cognitive abilities make them 'difficult' to manage in a society where we have a culture that aspires to youth, health, beauty and (I think there is irony here) celebrity.

Sir Terry Pratchett
Yes there are celebrities who support dementia and they will have a tale to tell of close personal involvement and the distress that is unavoidable with this degenerative disease. Sir Terry Pratchett has been very active in his media awareness campaigns about Alzheimer's - understandably as his own health deteriorates with the rare version he has. Glen Campbell has openly told people he has the disease and is doing a last tour 'while he still can'. Actors Tony Robinson and Larry Hagman, entertainer Russell Grant and musician Sir Cliff Richard have lost loved ones to Alzheimer's. But with dementia affecting nearly a million people in the UK alone - surely they aren't the only ones?

But I am not laying the blame for lack of public understanding of dementia at the feet of celebrities or any one part of society. Every single one of us must look into our own hearts. There are very few of us who will not be coming into contact with it over the next thirty years.

Useful links:

Alzheimer's Research UK
Alzheimer's Society
Dementia statistics
Look to the Stars

Photographs - from Look to the Stars website