From the goodness of our hearts?

Charities and volunteering are so integral a part of our lives that we give little thought to them anymore, but key figures in charitable institutions and some recent debates are starting to turn this on its head. Dan Pallotta, an American entrepreneur and humanitarian activist, has been calling for a rethink of the way we view charities and the non-profit sector his entire career. At the same time, schemes such as Cambodia’s Anti-Voluntourism Campaign aim to bring about a behavioural change in tourism and volunteering in developing countries. When it comes down to it, there is still no cure for breast cancer, homelessness is still a major problem and reports have just confirmed that 1 in 5 children in Edinburgh are living in poverty. Moreover, in the US, charitable giving has been stuck at just 2% of the country’s GDP for over 40 years. Unable to wrestle back any of the market share made by the for-profit sector, the non-profit sector is stuck in a rut, and desperately needs to be shaken up.

One of the key things to think about in this respect is the paradoxical attitude we have to the non-profit sector. Most people tend to give to charity in some sense, whether it is a passive act (making a one-off or regular donation) or an active one (running a marathon, or organising some kind of fundraising event). However, the fact remains that we are still reluctant to give up a significant amount of time or money – think how many Cancer Research volunteers you’ve ignored this term on Middle Meadow Walk. But, at the same time, we are indignant at the thought of charities using the money that we do give on what is deemed ‘overheads’. We seem to have this concept that charities should be spending only a very small proportion of funds for this purpose, without realising that things like advertising, marketing and staff salaries are vital for a charity’s growth.

Dan Pallotta gives the example of his company’s two most successful fundraising campaigns, the AIDS long-distance bike rides, running from 1992 to 2002, and the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walks, running from 1998 to 2002. Over the course of a decade, the campaigns had 82,000 participants and raised $302,000,000 in unrestricted funds – more money raised more quickly for these causes than any other fundraising event in history. Thousands and thousands of dollars were invested in these campaigns, and the investments clearly paid off. It may be time to start regarding charities the same way we regard the for-profit sector in terms of investment and risk capital.

Closer to home, the death of 92-year-old Olive Cooke in May highlights further this need to reassess the way charities work. Despite her family insisting it was not the case, the inquest into her death suggested that constant hounding for money from charities caused her to commit suicide, gaining the attention of ministers and triggering new rules for charity conduct. The impact this has had on people’s attitude to charities has only been negative. Constant requests for donations by charities is something most people have experienced, and something which a lot of people find unpleasant or even threatening. But because charities lack the funds to create more innovative and effective fundraising techniques, there is very little room for manoeuvre.

Dan Pallotta’s controversial call for a change in the way we think about charities links to another topical debate – that of ‘voluntourism’. In 2011, Friends International and Childsafe, supported by UNICEF, launched an Anti-Voluntourism Campaign in Cambodia, featuring the tagline ‘children are not tourist destinations’. The campaign aims to tackle the attitude tourists have towards orphanages in developing countries, and to raise awareness of the facts. According to Friends International communications director James Sutherland, there has been a 65% increase in Cambodian orphanages since 1995. ‘This is the 21st century; the situation should be getting better, not worse, and tourists are perpetuating that system.’

He has a point. Undoubtedly there are other factors involved in this increase, but a part of it could easily be because of the sheer monetary value of orphanages. In Cambodia there is no legal requirement for orphanages to be registered, there are no standards of practice, and there is no need for orphanages to account for funds raised by tours, where the children often perform or beg for money. On the one hand, the need for these funds is clearly present, and so it could be argued that no harm is being done by taking advantage of tourists. On the other hand, however, the dubious morality and indignity of techniques such as these must be questioned. A large proportion of children in orphanages are not orphans, and it is often more expensive to house them in such institutions than to send them home to live with their families. They are simply being used to create a profit.

‘Voluntourists’ are often used in the same way. Moving Worlds, an organisation which specialises in ‘experteering’ rather than ‘voluntouring’, discusses the supply and demand element: the voluntourist demands that they volunteer abroad, and are willing to pay for it. But unless the voluntourist has real, relevant skills to the project, the organisation supplying them with this opportunity most likely doesn’t need them, and so has to charge the voluntourist in order to accommodate them. The system works in that it raises funds, but offers little satisfaction to the volunteer and is little use to the organisation. The question is whether this is a morally acceptable system, or whether we should be pushing for more.

In an article in the Huffington Post last year, Philippa Biddle discussed her experience ‘voluntouring’ and stressed the need for a new look at the concept. On a school trip to Tanzania, their mission was to build a library for a local school, but she and her classmates turned out to be so bad at this the locals had to take down and redo their work each evening. ‘Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there’. Turning up to a developing country and doing what you’re told with minimal understanding isn’t helpful to the community – in some cases, it’s actually detrimental. ‘It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created.’

Some might argue that for many charitable causes, the funds are so desperately needed that it doesn’t matter how they are attained. Relentless cold calling and ‘voluntouring’, while not ideal solutions, do at least raise some cash. But in order for a charity to think long term and solve major social problems for good they need to be able to grow, and it is impossible for them to do this without innovative thinking – and it is impossible for this to happen without the support, cooperation and open-mindedness of the public.

Image: Friedensrichter

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