Supporting charities: does it really help?

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Just before Christmas I glanced through my local community newspaper and was struck by the number of items, primarily editorial, that were about charity – including on this occasion the front cover.

I did an audit. Of the 36 pages of the paper that weren’t devoted to sport, real estate, classifieds or jobs, no less than 20 contained a piece (and on several pages, two to three pieces) on something to do with charity.

Some were small items, others prominent. The cover story was about the threatened closure of a charity; other items were designed to alert readers to the needs of a particular organisation or their constituents; one or two were simply communicating a success or an outcome; others were seeking support via donations of goods, money or time.

This paper by nature does report similar items regularly but on this occasion the amount of charity pieces felt excessive. Maybe the somewhat dramatic headline on the front page set the tone – and me on high alert in terms of noticing how many similar pieces followed.

How to account for this increase? Perhaps the proximity to Christmas meant charities were under more pressure to deliver services and needed additional support; possibly they were being strategic in their communication, banking on the possibility that ‘Christmas spirit’ might motivate readers to contribute extra donations or to volunteer their time.

Whatever the reason I found myself feeling quite overwhelmed by all this need and wondered how other readers might fare in the face of these alerts and requests for support.

And something about it didn’t feel right – it felt like an expectation, a demand: ‘Look at all this – and do something about it!’. It was if the expectation that each of us as citizens was responsible and it was up to us to save the world.

In a sense this is very true. If you take the view that we’re all swimming in the same pond, it makes sense we’re in this mess together. Many of us recognise this and want to help our fellow man.

However we need to be careful with the word ‘help’. If we consider where each of us are at is the sum total of the choices we have made, and that many of us are choosing to remain stuck in choices that don’t actually support us, how much ‘help’ should we in fact give? When does help turn into enablement, into supporting people to stay in a state of disempowered given-up-ness? Is it possible with our ‘helping’ we are simply cushioning people from hitting rock bottom and finding their own way back?

I’m not saying we should do away with supportive services and structures – these are very much needed. But what is needed more are people who can demonstrate, simply by the way they present and live, a different way: one founded on choices that are self-supporting and sustaining. Powerful reflections such as this can lift us out of the misery we are in. Add to this clear-sighted education on how to make choices in life that do support and sustain us and we have an unbeatable combination – a combination that, to me at least, feels like what charity could really be all about.

The reflection the newspaper offered that morning spoke of none of this. Rather, just like the daily news, it spoke of unending human difficulty with no true resolution, of solutions with no true answers. Rather, it was looking for people to sustain a way of doing charity that, when we look at the state of the world, we could say no longer works – if indeed it ever truly did. After all, we’ve been doing charity since the dawn of civilisation and little has changed. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach. 

by Victoria Lister

2 Comments on “Supporting charities: does it really help?

  1. Thank you Bernadette. In truth though the reflection is there for us all to see if only we cared to look a little more deeply. Instead we use this proliferation of nonprofit goings-on as evidence that something is at least happening to assuage us all that’s not well in the world.

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