There was a time, no more than a few months back, when a single word could sum up both the capricious cruelty of nature and the inherent kindness of humanity. From last Boxing Day onwards, no one could discuss extremes of natural disaster without the deployment of a once-unfamiliar term, "tsunami". After a few days, the same word became associated with giving on a grand scale.
From collections at football matches and impromptu celebrity galas to village whip-rounds and shambolic but good- hearted fundraising concerts at local community centres, the great impulse, bringing us all together in a gesture of shared humanity, was the same. It was the tsunami appeal.
Now, in the way of things, the picture has become more complicated. Reports suggest that, in this great year of giving, not all good causes have benefited. In fact, many have suffered a catastrophic decline in corporate and individual donations.
Sane, the mental health charity, has been obliged to close down its call centres in Macclesfield and Bristol, and has curtailed its operations in London. The trustees of Childline are reported to be meeting this week to discuss whether to close down its emergency night-line.
A spokeswoman for the Missing Persons Helpline, also in severe financial difficulty, has confirmed that donations from individuals fell away during the tsunami appeal and show no sign of recovering.
As for corporate donors, it has apparently become more attractive for them to contribute towards a clear and visible capital project rather than give to a charity which addresses the altogether messier business of helping families in crisis or men and women tortured by mental illness.
The problem, it turns out, is not just that the tsunami appeal or the Make Poverty History campaign are bigger than others, but lies in the sort of giving experience that they offer. A recent report from the Institute of Fundraising has identified among its members "a general feeling of optimism generated from donors' 'feel-good' factor".
Unfortunately, as the helplines are discovering, some charities are, by the nature of their work, less able to make people feel good than others. The head of a major children's hospice told me recently the crisis in their funding was not simply caused by the tsunami appeal, which had indeed had a serious effect on donations. Something more profound was happening. The nature of charities, what they do for their beneficiaries but also what they provide those who give to them, had recently become all-important.
The great global appeals, with all the publicity and emotion that they have attracted, have habituated those who give to them to the idea that the charitable impulse has a personal pay-off: it makes people feel better about themselves. So when the cause they are asked to support is more local and involves, for example, helping mortally ill children and their families, the reaction is often that the whole idea is too upsetting to bear. People wince inwardly at the horror of it and give to something less depressing.
There is such a thing as charity chic. Without in any way underestimating the terrible suffering inflicted by the great wave of 26 December, the appeals which followed were almost uniquely donor-friendly. The disaster was the fault of no human. It was horrifying and dramatically visible. It transcended national boundaries. Taking the lives of hundreds of Europeans, it had more immediacy, and aroused greater media interest, than disaster involving foreigners on the other side of the world.
Even the name of the catastrophe helped. It was always much easier to give for a tsunami than for war, floods or famine.
The business of giving has been celebrified and turned into a consumer, PR-influenced activity. By making donations to charity, a large and wealthy firm reminds its directors, employees, shareholders and customers that, deep down, it is part of the human family and cares for more than just making money.
When individuals contribute their money to the appeal of the moment, they put themselves shoulder to shoulder with caring Sharon Stone or concerned Bono. By giving to the same cause as everyone else, they are caught up in a climactic burst of communal generosity which reminds them - and, more importantly, those who know them - that they're people of conscience.
But once charity becomes a branch of capitalism, benefits in the moral profit-and-loss column tend to be expected. In return for our giving, we have become used to the idea that we shall feel better about ourselves.
This is bad news for causes that deal with pain and problems too close to home to make us feel entirely comfortable. Beside the heart-rending pictures and stories about families suffering from misery and starvation on the other side of the world, charities which address mental illness, or the poor and homeless, or children who are being abused or who are dying, are never going to deliver the feel-good factor to which the Institute of Fundraisers refers.
Once charity began at home. It was the causes which were closest to our own experience which were most likely to be supported. Now it is the good and great campaigns, addressing tragedies safely distant in a faraway continent, to which we turn.Reuse content