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Are charities bottomless pits?

British coins stacked up

Ask professional fundraisers, and they’d probably say yes. No sooner have they won grant funding or sweet-talked a donor into parting with a cash gift, they’ve to do it all over again. For many charities, their route to growth is to support more beneficiaries; in most cases, this is not difficult, as there are always people in need to be found. However, to support more people, more funds need to be raised.

I spoke recently about charities filling in for the government. Just because the state may no longer claim to have the funds to address certain societal or health issues, the problem doesn’t automatically go away. What usually happens is charities plug the gap. This is admirable, certainly, but if charities take over the issue, there’s no longer any motivation for the government to ever reclaim that service and take it back under its wing, should their funds allow. The charity, without meaning to sound obtuse, is stuck with the problem.

The bigger a charity becomes, the wider it can cast its net, which is how it finds more beneficiaries; at some point, you’d assume national organisations, at least, would reach everyone that needs support, yet this never happens.

Then there are charities such as Cancer Research. The money this organisation alone puts towards a universal cure for cancer appears endless (it’s not like they haven’t achieved anything; they’ve discovered various ways to slow the disease, as well as the stopping of some mutations altogether). How could you put a limit on this? Until they find a cure, they’ll just keep on going, and money will continue to be raised for this reason.

Third Sector reported just a few months ago that ‘more than half of people view charities as bottomless pits’, an opinion more common amongst older people. Respondents in this same study also believe that charity is not the answer to society’s problems. Apparently, three out of every four people surveyed felt charities should give those they support a ‘hand up, not a hand out’. In the general public’s eyes, too many charities simply ask for money rather than show the effect donors’ support could bring to beneficiaries’ lives.

collection of old TV with colour screens

Take telly adverts from national charities. They’re emotive and bleak, designed to pull on the heartstrings of viewers. However, the public almost seem immune to them, given that there are so many. With how much television adverts cost to create and broadcast, it’s risky business if all they do is create apathy towards the cause. Linda Raftree, co-founder of Regarding Humanity, says this, ‘We know that organisations need to raise funds for their work, but when it comes to such advertising and campaign imagery, they’re often acting detrimentally to their long-term goals. The third sector needs to modernise and mature a little in terms of how it represents the people it’s supporting and supposedly helping.’

In 1985, Bob Geldof was one of the first to use this approach. His film of the starving in Africa shocked the UK public, who had no idea of the crisis unfolding. In conjunction with the Live Aid concert, Geldof’s campaign raised £30m, which is the equivalent of more than £60m today. Of course, being the first to do something will always see more of an impact than the one-hundredth person who does the same; there’s no surprise this approach doesn’t have the same effect in 2022. The public today want to see transparency from charities and the benefits of donating, i.e. seeing what they’ve helped to achieve.

If people truly believe charity is a bottomless pit, this may put people off from donating…after all, what’s the point of throwing a few pennies into a hole that needs hundreds and thousands of pounds, and which still wouldn’t be full? What impact could those few pennies ever hope to have?

Of course, those working within charities know the value of those ‘few pennies’. Yes, they won’t solve the problem, but they will help in some small way—and anything is better than no donation at all. It’s important for every good cause that the general public doesn’t see their organisation as a bottomless pit. If they concentrate on showing how the smallest donation can make even a short-term/short-lived difference, the public may be more inclined to support them.

No one entity can cure the world of its problems, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try to make a difference of some kind.


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