Paul Vallely: Online charity is buying, not bonding

Cash machine donations may raise much-needed funds, but at the expense of society as a whole

Sunday 02 January 2011 01:00
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It sounds so simple: "Press 1 for cash; Press 2 for balance; Press 3 to top up your mobile phone; Press 4 to make a donation to charity...." The Government announced last week that it wants to give us the ability to make a donation to charity every time we use a cash machine.

Stung by the criticism that his Big Society idea is empty political rhetoric without the money to fund it, David Cameron has decided that instead of taxing us he will ask us to stump up the cash voluntarily – so that charities can take over the tasks which were previously the responsibility of the state. PIN philanthropy is just part of a review to encourage more giving and turn 2011 into "the year of corporate philanthropy".

Philosophers have something they call the "principle of charity". It means addressing your opponent's argument in its strongest form, rather than making cheap-shot political gibes or Richard Dawkins-style caricaturing of your opponent's case. So let's leave aside the idea that a government promoting Big Society community empowerment is like building a brick wall top layer first.

The Cameron argument goes something like this. Britons lead most of Europe in charitable giving. Last year, 28.4 million adults donated £10.6bn to charity. The average monthly gift was £12. But we don't give anywhere near as much as people in the United States. There has not been such a strong emphasis here on private philanthropy because of the public funding of welfare. (A questionable causal connection, but let's leave it for the time being). If the Government made it easier to give, people would give more.

Some plausible numbers support all this. More than half of us now shop online, but only 7 per cent of us give money online. Yet eBay's scheme, which allows shoppers to add a small charitable donation with a single click, raised more than £2m in Britain last year. And where a seller pledges a donation to charity as part of the sale their chances of selling rise by 34 per cent in the UK. Such cost-free, give-as-you-go schemes encourage giving by people who would be intimidated by Gift Aid form-filling rules.

The pilot for this is Colombia, where cash machines have for a decade been clocking up 100,000 donations per month, averaging $1 a time, for one of three charities. There's the rub, or one of them: you get a choice of three. They do something similar at Waitrose. Every month, my branch donates £1,000 to three local good causes, split according to customers' votes with a charity token you are given at the the checkout. Perhaps I'm perverse, but it always makes me feel manipulated. It smacks of corporate PR designed to create consumer feelgood – like easyJet inviting you to donate to a carbon-offsetting charity.

Spur-of-the-moment decisions about giving are often shallow. They allow for no exploration of which charities are light on their feet and which are bloated bureaucracies. They will favour emotive heart-tugging strategies, like those ads which pretend you can stop violence against a photographed child with a £2 monthly standing order. TV telethon makers will tell you of the swell in donations when they schedule an emotional "trigger moment".

So expect more donations like the $8bn Helmsley legacy for the care of dogs. But don't expect much support for groups working with ex-offenders, however good their work is. And do expect the constant creation of novel projects to keep givers enthusiastic rather than unrestricted funding for unglamorous but vital overheads.

Altruism, despite Social Darwinian arguments that it must work against the individual survival of the fittest, is a deep-rooted social instinct in animals as well as humans. Why else would vervets give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of predators, even though that draws attract attention to themselves and increases their own chance of being attacked? As part of our genetic heritage, we seem hard-wired to sense reward in helping others. When we give, MRI scans show, the pleasure centres in our brains light up. Evolution has endowed us with a social brain that predisposes us to acts of kindness.

But we need to apply our intelligence to how those are best directed rather than responding to knee-jerk stimuli. The danger with PIN philanthropy is that it increases our alienation from others, under the guise of connecting with them. A quarter of charitable donations are prompted by direct personal experience of something that happened to the giver or a relative or friend. The Channel 4 series Secret Millionaire, in which the rich are led into situations of others' need, shows up the importance of the personal connection between a giver and the cause they adopt.

The importance of connecting is shown in the strong correlation between giving money and giving time – 58 per cent of donors give both. That suggests that Government plans to pilot a National Citizen Service for 10,000 16-year-olds next summer might be a sounder approach than cashpoint giving. Volunteering makes people happier, as I noticed the other day with the cheery ladies I met in a hospice charity shop. Surveys suggest that volunteers lift the morale of the wider community too.

It is routinely observed that religious people are happier than the non-religious, but recent research suggests this isn't because of what they believe. Rather it is because they come together in communities where they provide one another with friendship and support. It is churchgoing, rather than belief, which is the key; churchgoers are not just more likely to volunteer for faith activities but also for arts or cultural organisations, healthcare, visiting the elderly and youth work. Those with strong religious beliefs who do not go to church regularly are, if anything, less happy than their secular neighbours. We are more greatly influenced by what others do than by what we think we ought to do. That's why if there is litter on the ground, we are more likely to drop litter ourselves.

Online box-ticking will address none of that. It may raise a bit more cash for charity but it won't bring the transformation our fragmented society needs. Nor will it fill the hole left by looming cuts in government contracts and other forms of support which make up almost a third of UK charities' current £35m annual income. Nor will it address the inequity of 47 per cent of charitable donations coming from just 8 per cent of the population. Nor the fact that – despite all the guff about venture philanthropy – the poor give away a greater percentage of their income than the rich.

"Philanthropy can't fill the gap left by government cuts," says Phil Buchanan, head of the Centre for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If it can't in America, why would it here?

"... Press 1236 for the National Osteoporosis Society; Press 1237 for Oxfam ; Press 1238 for the Devon Donkey Sanctuary....

Simple? If only it were.

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