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How far should a charity go?

This is a bit of a philosophical post, about the support many beneficiaries need if they want to make significant, positive, lasting changes in their lives.

Often, charities help with just one aspect of their beneficiaries’ needs. Their support typically has an immediate impact; however, overall, it doesn’t bring about much change for the individual over the long term. This is not because charities don’t care about the people they help, but that they only have so much to play with, in terms of resources and skills.

Homeless person with bags holding a sign that says "anything helps"

For instance, someone who’s homeless may feel safer and more sheltered if they were given a roof over their head; however, even if they were given this, their need for food would continue, and if they wished to become a functioning member of society, they would need a way to earn an income and a support network to keep them from returning to the streets. Many of those living on the streets also have alcohol or drug addictions to conquer, which would become another factor in a ‘getting them back on their feet’ plan. There may be charities in existence that could do all those things, but they would be few and far between. Usually, support would come from a few different organisations all trying to do their bit.

And, let’s not forget, in a scenario like that above, the main work would have to come from the individual themselves. It’s perhaps difficult to imagine why, but some homeless people feel that the streets are safer than a hostel, for example. Though dangerous, they’re familiar. They become used to this way of living, and any third-party attempt to help them can take the individual out of their comfort zone, which can be a scary prospect—even if, in our eyes, a room with a bed appears a step up from a cold, damp shop doorway.

There are a lot of people in our country with what’s known in the sector as ‘complex needs’. These could be lots of different physical needs or a mixture of both physical and mental issues that require support. Whilst it would be nice to think one organisation could simply swoop in and make everything better for such an individual, this isn’t what tends to happen.

The good news, however, is that charities are typically adaptable and helpful, with their beneficiaries’ health and happiness at the heart of everything they do. It’s natural for charities to signpost people to another organisation or service for further help as they manage the issue they’re equipped to deal with. It’s also not uncommon for charities working in similar fields to join forces.

Food bank volunteers packaging food

Imagine the support a food bank offers; most of the time, this support is limited to three or four visits a year. Beneficiaries will be given enough food for around a week…when this food has been eaten, their situation goes back to square one. If said food bank was to donate a bag of food week in, week out, to the same people, it wouldn’t be able to help anywhere near as many beneficiaries as it will undoubtedly support. Donating a week’s worth of food is akin to sticking a plaster over a gunshot wound…it could take someone years to climb past the poverty threshold. It costs a lot to be poor, as this article suggests. It’s not something that can be eradicated by a few carrier bags of produce. Some people would even argue that perpetually helping someone isn’t actually helping them at all, as it removes their responsibility to help themselves and, as a consequence, they will never find the impetus to better their situation if they can exist on handouts.

All that said, that these charities try to help, that they try to reduce society’s problems even a little, is crucial. If the UK’s good causes didn’t offer their support—however limited it may appear to some—the country would be in a far, far worse state than it already is—especially given how much budgets for front line services have been slashed. Even if charities only remove some of the stress and worry their beneficiaries feel, it’s better than not doing anything at all, and their support could inspire the individual to seek further help from other organisations/outlets. As I’ve said, the alternative, i.e. doing nothing at all, isn’t something we should ever contemplate.

Another positive from individual charities focusing on just one issue at a time is that they will understand that problem inside out. With the data they’ll gather, they may be able to influence government policy and really bring about lasting change. They will have access to specialists and experts in their sector. They will be passionate about addressing that one thing and have an army of volunteers behind them to assist.

If a charity was to address more than one of their beneficiaries’ issues at any one time, their support would be diluted. It’s not viable, nor in anyone’s best interest, for individual charities to deal with everything their beneficiaries may need, for the reasons outlined above.


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