On Comic Relief

It is that time of year again. Folk shaking buckets at you and the ever-so-fun sponsored charitable acts. Woe betide if you don’t throw your coins at the strangers insisting you give them money – it’s for charity. Are you some sort of monster? Now wind down your window and give us your cash!

I have written before about my dislike of Red Nose Day (see here). The reasons I personally don’t get on with it are legion. Admittedly, some of those reasons are more legitimate than others. I accept my loathing of the forced fun is not necessarily widely shared and certainly, of itself, is not reason to withhold charitable donations from the needy. Here are some more credible reasons why I am wary of throwing my lot into Comic Relief.

Assumption that ‘giving to charity’ is an inherent good

Don’t get me wrong here, I think giving to worthy causes is very good. I am all for charitable giving. However, we have reached a point in society where simply ‘giving to charity’ is deemed a good almost regardless of who the charity happens to be. Under the umbrella of ‘charitable work’ you could work for entirely opposing charitable purposes without ever being questioned. The reason we are often given for Comic Relief is that it is ‘for charity’ as if that, of itself, is necessarily a good. But there are charities whose purposes most of us wouldn’t support. For example, giving to many religious organisations is often charitable. If I said I was giving to charity, that would be seen as inherently good. If I said my charitable giving was to my local church, or mosque, or some such, I suspect there would be less universal approval.

The problem with Comic Relief is that in the name of ubiquitous ‘charity’ it is deemed an ultimate good. The social pressure to engage just because that word ‘charity’ is invoked is immense. It is almost cultic in its application. Comic Relief encourages this thoughtless approach to charitable giving.

Lack of transparency

A similarly linked concern is the lack of transparency. Charitable giving is not always the obvious good that is presumed. Therefore, we ought to be giving to those charities whose aims are genuinely good and who lead to good being done in practice.

There are many charitable organisations with whom I simply cannot agree on their aims. A more obvious example would be the British Humanist Association. This is an organisation that promotes a philosophy with which I deeply disagree and who actively work to limit freedoms for people of faith. This is not a charity I would want to support.

Likewise, there are charities that I believe have good intentions, whose aims are laudable, but whose practices do more harm than good. Take Kids Company as a case in point. Here is a charity setup with the expressed intention of supporting inner-city deprived children. That is clearly a very laudable thing. However, some of the practices of the organisation – such as giving children cash payouts – was criticised as rather exacerbating many of the problems faced by inner-city children. Though the organisation had laudable aims, some its practices were down right detrimental to its own cause as well as creating other problems in areas beyond its own concern. Not only should you know about the specific aims and intentions of the charity you support, it is important to know about its practices and whether you can support the means of the charity as well as the ends.

Now consider Comic Relief. It acts as an umbrella for a whole swathe of different charities. There is simply no way we can ever fully investigate all the charities to whom it will give. We aren’t ever going to know all their aims and gain an understanding of their basic practices. I don’t necessarily want to say this is the fault of Comic Relief but it is the reality. There is a lack of transparency, by its very nature, over where your money is going. Though the pictures on TV are of starving Africans getting food and homeless people receiving shelter, there are hundreds of charities supported doing wildly different things. It surely cannot be good to simply give your money away and not know to what you are giving, especially if it goes to charities you would feel deeply uncomfortable supporting if only you knew.

There is a better way

Let me be clear, I am not encouraging a lack of charitable giving here. I am not saying do not give to charity and do not support good works. What I am saying is make sure you know where your money is going and what you are supporting. With that in mind, there is a better way.

Rather than giving to an opaque umbrella organisation, work out which charities you do want to support – find out about their aims and their practices – and then give money to them. If you want to raise money on Red Nose Day itself, that’s fine. Just don’t give the money to Comic Relief, give it directly to the charity you actually wish to support. This has the dual benefit of knowing precisely where your money is going and the charity receiving more of your donation because there are no administrative costs or middle men to go through.

Even better, why not identify a charity you really want to support and give to it regularly? I could do a sponsored whatever once per year and give X amount to charity. But isn’t better if I give regularly and stay informed about what my charity is doing and how they are using the money I give? Just by taking a more regular interest the charity is more likely to grow because people see the need and consider volunteering. Regular, ongoing gifts are usually more valuable than one-off single donations.

I am all for charitable giving. I am just for thoughtful, considered charitable giving. I am not for money being thrown at some nebulous concept of charity. I am for people engaging with specific charities with actual aims and practices that we understand and can support wholeheartedly with our eyes open. It is my view that Comic Relief undercuts such good charitable giving.

Anyway, do forgive me if I don’t do a sponsored funny walk in a big wig (what larks these things are!) nor throw some coins into your bucket. And it would be terrific if we could just dial down the derision for those who choose not to partake. After all, it’s not really charitable giving when we force people into it, is it?

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