The devil is in the retail

This is Devil’s Bridge in Kirkby Lonsdale. The story goes that the townsfolk made a pact with the devil that if he built them a bridge over the river, he could have the soul of the first person who crossed the bridge. When the bridge was completed, a canny old lady sent her dog across the bridge and the devil had to be satisfied with the animal’s soul. Now, putting the old woman’s callous attitude towards her dog to one side, this suggests both an impotent devil and also one rather lacking an eye for legal detail.

Away from the stuff of legend, though, the real devils in our society are those large organisations (and governments) that lack a moral compass. Often, profit is the end the justifies the means and over the last few years, this seems to have come to affect charities. Of course, this isn’t a completely new thing. A young and very broke Jeffrey Archer became wealthy overnight after his first charity event – for which he took a 10% organiser’s fee – raised four million pounds. His justification was that the charity made a whole load of money it wouldn’t have had otherwise and his percentage was an incentive to raise as much as possible.

It’s a seductive argument, isn’t it? And an amoral one. Now companies have sprung up that will hassle you on the street, collecting money for charities in return for 30% of the takings.  I went passed a chap last year, collecting for Save The Children, who tried to intercept me and I told him, politely, that I wasn’t interested. As I walked away he said “Not all kids are as lucky as yours, mate”. I found this pretty offensive. Not because it wasn’t true but because he was using guilt as a weapon. Not because he cared about the children – he wasn’t working as a volunteer for Save The Children – but because he wanted to make a “sale”.

Last week, someone knocked on my door collecting for, I think, Cancer Research. I explained that I already gave to some charities and I didn’t feel able to give any more plus that, if I did, I would donate directly to the charity and not sign up on the doorstep. This time I was treated to a shake of the head.

Even this practice of seeking you out in your own home is not quite as invasive as Christian Aid’s policy of ringing up existing donors to ask them to give a bit more. I’m not by nature someone who gets angry but I wanted to snatch the ‘phone off my wife when I heard her listing her monthly expenditure to justify why shouldn’t couldn’t give more. (Incidentally, this practice was defended by Christian Aid, saying it wasn’t actually them who make the calls, which is cowardly.)

And, finally, today, I saw an advert for Help For Heroes, which appeared to have a mocked up stamp on it saying “Charity of the Year”. Having googled once I got home, this appears to be a project to get companies to adopt a certain charity as the recipient for their donations for the year. The way it looked on the advert implied (or, at least, I inferred) that Help For Heroes was THE charity of the year, like it had won an award.

I think a mistake is being made here. Charities are being seduced by short term gain, by focussing purely on the target of raising money. Now, OBVIOUSLY that is what charities are for. But that doesn’t mean they should do anything to raise money. I run a company and sales are massively important to us, they are the lifeblood of our business and I’ve been approached frequently by companies offering to generate leads for us, on a commission basis. It’s very tempting, especially when times were tough.

However, I care too much about my business, about how we approach and engage with people, to let someone do that on our behalf. Save The Children for me – someone who cares a lot about children – is now associated with the young man who tried to make me feel bad so he could make a sale. That’s not intellectual, that’s just my emotional response. But intellectually, I hold them in low regard for allowing an amoral third party company to take a cut of the money that well-meaning people want to give to help children.

I don’t know what the answer is, except to say don’t deal with the devil, don’t be lazy. You are doing good work but you need to work at it.

About fennerpearson
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6 Responses to The devil is in the retail

  1. Janet says:

    Interesting. My nephew is a ‘chugger’, working for a company that approach people in the street to sign them up. He’s a graduate that couldn’t find a job so took this on. He has targets he must meet or he doesn’t get paid, and it’s a less than minimum wage job because they provide him with accommodation and transport, and he’s permanently ‘on the road’ so is effectively locked in to the job. He and his colleagues swap tales of their most successful chat up lines and frankly they are poor at best. But the point I am trying to make is that not only are the Charities making a mistake with their approach as you say, but that they are also directly responsible for the appalling treatment of the ‘chuggers’ themselves.

  2. well said I think lots of this “charity mugging” as I can it is actually producing charity fatigue so people now just turn off plus they are more likely to give to smaller charities where they can see their money is making a difference –

  3. The Under the Weather Girl says:

    Interesting perspective, Fenner.
    The fact you felt so strongly that you almost wanted to “snatch the phone” from your wife really illustrates the depth of feeling behind this blog.
    I’ve done a lot of fundraising for charities.
    In particular Marie Curie & Christian Aid.
    I’m not entirely sure there’s an ‘ideal’ way for them to raise funds, but what your piece illustrates is that there’s clearly a less than ideal way!
    I was about to add that I think Richard Curtiss and his wife Emma Freud have found the best route but seem to remember an earlier blog where you talked about feeling uncomfortable with Comic Relief?
    Charity is such a contentious issue and I admire the fact that you’ve tackled this.
    I’m sure others will add to the debate.
    My greatest personal sadness is that as a country we spend billions of pounds on arms & yet hospices up & down the land need to ‘prostitute’ themselves for donations.
    Thanks for another superbly written blog.

    • Thanks, Lily. It’s true that the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy on Comic Relief makes me uncomfortable, although I have no criticism of Richard Curtis and Emma Freud. Far from it.
      Ultimately, I agree with what you say. If we didn’t *waste* those billions on instruments of misery, think of all the good that could be done. Spending that money addressing the desperate problems that charities tackle would make us world leaders in the best possible sense.
      Thanks for your kind words, for reading and taking the trouble to comment.
      F x

  4. Russell Ison says:

    There is so much sense spoke here. I am the trustee of a small charity in the Portsmouth area. Simply we record the local newspaper and various other publications on to memory sticks and post them out every week to around 450 blind and partially-sighted people around Hampshire. Our running costs come in at about £1000 per year – that’s all, thanks to the hugely dedicated group of nearly fifty volunteers who give their time in great quantity and even greater willingness and good humour.

    I, too, resent charities who play the guilt card and, I have to say, Help For Heroes is up there amongst them. I know this is controversial. But let me first say I am a great supporter of our armed services. The Royal British Legion, SSAFA and others do a fantastic job in both raising money and spending it on appropriate projects. Remember that HfH only raises money and passes it to other charities to spend. And, in turn, HfH, itself a “marketing” organisation hires other marketing companies to “chug” shoppers in shopping centres. So you can begin to see where a lot of the money raised goes, on administration and Archer-like commission. I am happy to correct this if somebody from the charity can prove this is not the case…but I doubt they will.

    One of my clients had a difficult issue with HfH when the client’s uniformed staff were reminded the only charity insignia they could wear was the Poppy (in line with almost every other uniformed service). HfH got really difficult and went straight to the red top press saying that my client was unpatriotic and didn’t care about the services…something that could not have been further from the truth.

    What I am saying here is it is not just donating money that shows support for a charity. Many of my charity’s volunteers are retired people with low fixed incomes. Charities MUST NOT assume that just because they do not donate money, people are not charitable. A little more money would be welcome for our charity but we would stop operating without people donating their time.

    • Thanks for commenting, Russ.

      I didn’t realise that was how HfH operated and suddenly that makes a lot more sense. It also makes me more dubious about them. I mean, if you and I were going to start a ‘charity’ to collect money for other charities and skim a bit off, I’d suggest choosing the armed forces would be a very shrewd commercial choice.

      Furthermore, whilst I can see other organisations collecting for, say, cancer or Alzheimer’s research will get an amount of money that is commensurate with people’s concern about those issues, that should not apply to armed forces personnel. The government should be taking care of them to the point where there is no need for any charitable body to get involved.

      Finally, I believe what people give – either financially or in terms of their own time – should be entirely their own concern and they certainly should not be forced to defend what they do give on the street or the doorstep.

      Thanks again for taking the trouble to write.

      F x

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