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


Christopher Beanland
Saturday 04 January 2014 01:00

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?

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