Take a punth on it: From Veganuary to Decembeard – How each month of the year became a charity endeavour

 

Chloe Nicholls is one many people who will forego club-toilet vomiting, hangovers, and insufferable Bonnie Tyler karaoke renditions this month. "I'm actually looking forward to detoxing this New Year," she explains. "I've always wanted to do it." January was always a time of restraint – but lately it's become the atheist's answer to Lent, with huge numbers of people in Britain staying off the sauce for the duration.

Nicholls is getting herself sponsored for Cancer Research UK's Dryathlon, which raised £4 million last January - the first time the charity took a punt on doing a big, month-long event. "It's a good idea, it gets people talking," she reckons. "By doing it for charity it'll help me stay accountable." But this month is also Alcohol Concern's Dry January. And don't forget Macmillan's Go Sober For October.

The social media age has arrived at the same time as the proliferation of big, branded new-media-friendly charity campaigns. And the 'month' is at the centre of it all. Nicholls - who works in tech herself - reflects that the community spirit of the online world "that'll help me stick to this!" seems to march in step with the philosophy behind these multimedia pushes. It's something we can all do in a group.

"The Dryathlon Facebook page and Twitter feed play a key part in the campaign, as they bring together our Dryathletes in a fun community where they share the experience," confirms Cancer Research UK marketing director Anthony Newman. "Social media allows us to engage in a different way."

It's the same story for Dry January: "A month off can be quite a challenge," says Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, "and by taking part together we're aiming to create a supportive environment."

The private sector has become increasingly involved with charities. Big corporate sponsors such as Gillette and HP Sauce took out Facebook ads to tie in with Movember. But on a smaller scale, advertising and marketing agencies are picking up the baton, too. Paul Grundy of London's MOOH Group has helped give Dry January a slick new style and a nice looking website. A campaign whose kernel is to not spend money on something is a difficult one to attract sponsors for. "Although it could be deemed hypocritical to help support Alcohol Concern - given that we do so much entertaining within our line of work," he laughs, "I think it's important that businesses take part in charitable endeavours." Even The Daily Telegraph has pitched in as a supporter of Dry January - encouraging its readers to keep off the sweet sherry until February .

In a consumer society where what we buy defines us to our very core, charities have had to adapt or die. It wasn't the much-talked-about John Lewis ad that defined the spirit of Christmas 2013, it was Harvey Nichols' Sorry, I Spent It On Myself ad. We are getting more selfish, more narcissistic. Charities have rebranded themselves with slicker names and logos to make us want to align ourselves with them. Cause marketing has taken hold. Charities have employed PRs with experience of working on mainstream consumer brands to help them master the dark art of the publicity stunt.


Nudity is always a solid weapon in the quest for attention - jokiness also leavens the message. The Rylstone Women's Institute calendar of 1999 famously combined both and was the WMD of the Millennial charity world. "I think fundraising was only ever one part of the picture," reflects writer Tim Firth, who turned the Yorkshire women's stories into a massively successful film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, then later a play. "A huge component was a knee-jerk reaction to strike back at a sly and conniving disease [cancer] using the weapon of comedy - which is the best way to respond to any bully."

The original Calendar Girls birthed a tide of nude calendar imitations. But perhaps the natural heir to their crown is actually Movember - which began, like a lot of these tongue-in-cheek ideas - in Australia. "The fact that it became a sort of proto-Movember - ie, a replicable event - was of course totally unexpected," says Firth. "It's one thing to grow a moustache in November. It's quite another to appear on your neighbour's wall stark naked behind a kettle for the whole of January."

A consumer society also atomises us - yet this is not our natural state. So whether it's getting our kit off with coffee morning friends, or growing a moustache with our mates, this new world of charity appeals to our natural desire to play as a team. Movember appeals to that part of the psyche. "Since our humble beginnings, more than four million 'Mo Bros' and 'Mo Sistas' have raised over £310 million, funding over 577 men's health programmes worldwide," points out Movember's communities manager Jon Sim. "Our vision is of having an everlasting impact on men's health."

That's a huge amount of money and, you'd guess, a huge amount of awareness-raising. Men are often lax when it comes to their own health, so Movember uses playfulness to engage with guys who'd otherwise be largely bored rigid by the turgid rhetoric some charities employ. Movember has proved essential for the likes of Prostate Cancer UK: "We're a beneficiary of the Movember Foundation - and their month of fundraising is of vital importance to us," says the charity's spokesperson, Jane Spence.

However, not everyone is convinced that Movember is so great for improving male health. "I can test you on what, as a bloke, you know about your health at the end of November that you didn't know at the start," Dr Chris Hiley tells me. She's a critic of the "nonsense of charity awareness months," and adds: "What, apart from a moustache, have you really gained?"

In the past, charity was a Calvinist pursuit - low-key and demure. But now we can use it as a tool to paint pictures of ourselves the way we want friends to see us. We have changed our giving behaviour. "Movember shows how narcissistic charity has become," argues Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked magazine. "No one seems to quietly give cash to a good cause any more - instead everyone makes a big public display of their charitable instincts by covering themselves in ribbons and wristbands or sprouting a moustache. It's a way of saying: 'I'm good, I care, I am aware of other people's suffering'."


Maybe we don't blindly accept charities' claims any more. Last month's delayed - and controversial - BBC Panorama report into Comic Relief's investments raised eyebrows. Other charities have been questioned too. Madhulika Sikka survived breast cancer but is no fan of Breast Cancer Awareness month. The executive news editor for America's public radio station NPR in Washington DC has written strident articles for The Atlantic and The Guardian lambasting pink ribbons and crass commercial sponsorship. KFC pink breast cancer bucket, anyone? "I think there is a place for the commercial in the area of charities," she concedes. "My particular issue with Breast Cancer Awareness month, as someone who has experienced breast cancer, is that it seems to have become predominantly focused on the things you can buy or wear or display to show that you are 'aware'. There often isn't much about what you can actually do to help someone going through it."

Pink Chambord for breast cancer or a moustache painted on the front of a South West train for Movember. You wonder where corporate social responsibility begins and 'brand-building' ends. "If businesses want to spend some of their money supporting charities - whatever their motivations - then I'm all for that. At least they're contributing," reckons Craig Butcher, a men's lifestyle journalist who's taken part in previous Movembers himself. "Where I draw the line is companies riding on the coat tails of charity months. There are lots out there profiting from moustache merchandise during Movember, without a penny going to Movember."

It seems churlish to criticise charities when they're the ones left picking up the pieces after the corporations have left the party. You could argue that if it wasn't for the arrogance and greed of the cigarette companies and the nightclub operators, there wouldn't be half as much need for health charities to address cancer and its socially devastating consequences. We need them. And if we don't need them right now, we sure as hell will do at some point in the future. Before, the welfare state charities provided the last social safety net. As the government retreats from its role as national carer, health and housing charities in particular are going to find their hands fuller than ever.

 The fact that we have Macmillan nurses and prostate cancer helplines, Samaritans on the phone, Shelter helping the homeless, Amnesty campaigns to help prisoners of conscious - these are measures of us as a society. These organisations, these volunteers, these people who give time and money, mark us out as civilised. And yet, despite the amazing work, the new wave of earnest 'months' grates on some people. Could it be that there are too many of them? "In our modern society, individuals are bombarded by messages from all directions, but I don't think fatigue is an issue in response to charity campaigns," says Andrew Holt, editor of Charity Times. "People can decide for themselves whether they give or not."

Movember has spawned hirsute offshoots such as Armpits For August, where women grow out their armpit hair to support the polycystic ovary charity Verity. And Decembeard - a pognophobe's worst nightmare. "Like Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Decembeard is our key campaign," says Beating Bowel Cancer's chief executive Mark Flannagan. "They're all about raising the profile of the issues - and then on the back of this is fundraising."

It all seems a long way from the sponsored silence. But maybe there is a precedent. "From runs to coffee mornings, charities have often run similar campaigns at the same time, and they've worked well for us," says Cancer Research UK's Anthony Newman. "It's important in the current financial climate to constantly innovate and explore new ways of raising money."

Is it time for the charities to innovate again though? To find something that goes beyond the 'months' and touches people in different ways. Something that makes them want to really get involved again? "The key challenge is for the activity - like growing a moustache, giving up booze or wearing a Christmas jumper - to be consciously linked in people's minds with the cause," says Vicky Browning, director of Charity Comms, a PR agency that spreads charities' messages to the news media. "Whether that's men's health, combating cancer, or saving children's lives - rather than the cause getting lost in the noise."

Or are these huge branded media-savvy months the eventual future for all charities? "I hope that's not where we are, or where we're going," says Greta Hughson of HIV charity NAM. "But God it's hard work finding any money at the moment!"

Which of these are genuine punths?

 

 



 

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015