Sarah Sands: We are at our best when we think of others

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The Independent Online

It was tricky for the Children in Need telethon on Friday to find the right tone. The stars of Saturday night light entertainment were yanked together with the sick and suffering, big X Factor smiles suddenly changing to furrowed brows and hushed voices. The programme was wary of stand-up comics: Jimmy Carr looked trepanned into docility, Frankie Boyle was absent, as he would presumably have felt obliged to make jokes about meningitis. But we were safe and warm with Terry Wogan and Tess Daly.

Some might question the taste of highly paid celebrities lecturing the rest of the country on coughing up. The programme seemed to be pitched in content at children and grannies rather than investment bankers. Emma Watson has discussed in interviews her "scary" £20m Harry Potter fortune, but it was audiences who were asked to splash the cash.

If "people up and down this country", as Ed Miliband likes to call us, feel rage with Lord Young for saying we had never had it so good, do we want to hear Terry Wogan telling us we can afford to give?

Well, yes, actually. Children in Need proves one of the most heartening truths about humanity: people give more in times of economic hardship. Fraud may rise, as do suicides, but so does compassion.

Even destitution does not rob you of fellow feeling. The most festive story of the week, I thought, was the homeless Adan Abobaker, who leapt over Blackfriars bridge to rescue a young woman trying to drown herself. As one one reader commented: "You are someone who had fallen on hard times, but still showed selfless courage to help someone in need."

As it happens, Mr Abobaker wasn't wholly abandoned by a busy and successful city. He found shelter through St Mungo's, the excellent charity for the homeless. The big society existed long before David Cameron discovered it, many unshowy platoons beneath the radar and government support.

A feature of the boom years was the expansion of the big charities, rather like banks. Fundraising was professional, marketing corporate. Competition was fierce. It still is. I saw someone from a military charity the other day whose face fell at the mention of Help For Heroes. Everyone is fishing in the same pool.

Should charities be subject to the ubiquitous economic efficiencies? Should more merge? Downsize?

The trend in charities is towards realism and localism rather than global reach. The Evening Standard's dispossessed fund gives thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, to specific projects, because that is what readers want. Children in Need captures the charitable imagination with a small enterprises such as equine therapy for troubled children.

Some effective charities would fall foul of the BBC because of religious connotations. David Cameron also skirted round praising charities founded on faith. George Bush showed no such bashfulness. His Big Idea was the transfer of power to faith-based charities. We know that they run the best schools and are theologically compelled to look after society's rejects. The Salvation Army is what I love most about Christmas.

Concern for the less fortunate seems at odds with the pursuit of self-fulfilment, the premise of television light entertainment. Yet the two are linked. It is the secret of the happiness index: you are more yourself by giving to others.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard