Does charity begin at the Great Wall of China?

I've nothing against sponsoring, but forking out for someone's holiday is not the same
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The Independent Culture
"DEAR SUE Arnold, I am hoping to raise money for a worthy cause - the Stoke Poges Living Arts Trust - by pushing a barrel-organ (with live monkey) from Basingstoke to Budapest this summer. It promises to be an exciting project which will put SPLAT well and truly on the cultural map. So far we have been promised support by a number of local organisations, including The Stoke Poges Ladies Only Society of Herbalists, Stoke Poges Army Museum and Stoke Poges United Distilleries, who have very generously agreed to provide SPLASH, SPAM and SPUD back-up vehicles containing food, bedding and first aid respectively. I am nevertheless hoping to extend my appeal to a wider audience, which is why I have taken the liberty of writing to you..."

At least that one wasn't asking for money, only publicity. Most of the begging letters I get, and I've had a spate of them over the past two weeks, include half a dozen sponsor sheets and the unsolicited information that some individuals have given them up to pounds 250.

To do what? A variety of intrepid things such as walking along the Great Wall of China to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, running across the Sahara for the Royal National Institute for the Blind Talking Books Appeal, and scaling the heights of Machupicchu in Peru for something undoubtedly worthy, but totally forgettable as far as I am concerned because it included Mariella Frostrup as one of its celebrity tour leaders.

This seems to be the latest fashion in charity sponsorship, inspired I have no doubt by Comic Relief, which raised extra millions this year when they spotlighted famous people like Stephen Fry and Geri Halliwell doing good deeds in the Third World. Thus, instead of cycling from Clapham Common to Dorking along with 2,000 other anonymous well-meaning folk, as I once did to raise money for the London Lighthouse Appeal, you get a bunch of celebrities cycling along with you, followed, and this is the crucial part, by TV cameras and newspaper reporters who will convert an otherwise non-newsworthy story into a page-one splash.

Break a couple of minor royals into the mixture and your celebrity cake will double in size. I know a well-heeled Austrian with connections who does nothing but organise glittering international charity events where, for between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000, you can rub shoulders with impoverished maharajas at fund-raising cricket matches in Jaipur, or shoot bear in Siberia with claimants to the Romanov throne. (Did you know that the descendants of all the deposed monarchs of Europe have their own society? They have regular dinners in a backroom of the Pizza Express (they're all broke) and plan what they are going to do when they are back on their thrones.)

Don't misunderstand me. I've nothing against sponsored charities. If it weren't for their annual sponsored cycle ride from London to Brighton, heaven knows how the British Heart Foundation would pay for its equipment. On the other hand, from a sponsor's point of view, forking out for someone to fly to Beijing on what is basically a packaged holiday with optional excursions isn't quite the same thing, especially as I happen to know the individual who wrote to me isn't short of a bob and could probably afford to buy the BHF a cardiograph all by herself. She's an inveterate traveller, usually goes with a group of like-minded mature Open University fine art students. Her last trip was the Constance Spry flower-arranging tour of the Hindu Kush.

OK, OK, she's raising money for charity with this promenade along the Great Wall, but I can't help feeling that the BHF would get more out of the pair of us if she emptied her piggy-bank. I sent a modest donation and we left China out of it. Running across the Sahara - now that's different. The man who wrote to me happens to be blind and said it would probably take him some time because the Sahara isn't smooth sand, it is rocks and humps and hollows. Stumbling, rather than running, he said. When he's finished, it will be an achievement not a package holiday or a celebrity gig. Rather you than me, I said when I sent him his cheque.

The most ingenious sponsor- seeker I know of was the student who planned to drive from London to Sydney to raise money for charity and wrote to all the Hilton Hotels between said capitals asking for free accommodation.

Which precise charity he was supporting or how much he raised we never found out. He was last heard of at the Delhi Hilton, no doubt rubbing shoulders with impoverished maharajas at fund-raising cricket matches. It was probably better in the old days, when charity began at home.

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