From Daffodils to Despots: the thing about charity.

I was chatting to a fellow mum-of-a-toddler the other day, and she was having a bit of a moan about her son’s nursery and the amount of activities they undertake for charity.

It seems like there’s something different every week. Dress up as this, or sponsor me for this, or send in a donation for this. I can’t keep going round my friends and asking for money every week, it’s getting ridiculous.

Oooh,” I said. “How awkward. Thank goodness they don’t do that at DorkySon’s nursery.

Two days later DorkySon comes home from nursery with a letter saying that all the kids have planted a daffodil bulb and would we consider sending in some sponsorship money (for an undoubtedly very good charity). It’s voluntary, of course, but they would really appreciate our support.

And so it has begun.

And I’m a bit annoyed, actually.

Donating to charity is such a very, very personal thing. Believe me, DorkyDad and I both know how important raising money is. He has worked in fundraising and development for over thirty years, and is currently the Director of Philanthropy for a major UK charity. Before the arrival of DorkySon, I was the sole Scottish staff member for an environmental NGO, and part of that job involved fundraising my own salary! Between us, we know the difference that a five quid can make, and the difference that five million quid can make. We both make regular donations, but we like to do that in an informed and selective way.

The ‘daffodil charity’ does great work – I know it does – but they are not an organisation that we have chosen to give money to before.

So we are put in the position where we have to set a precedent. Do we stick a couple of quid in the envelope just because it’s our son, and it’s his nursery and we want to support their efforts? If we do that once, then I think we have to be prepared to do the same thing every time we get asked. Or do we stick to our personal principles, keep giving money to our chosen charities, and quietly stick DorkySon’s daffodil envelope in the bin? That also sets a precedent, and means that we risk a reputation as the mean parents who won’t make donations, or the parents who don’t care about cancer, or animals, or whatever the cause of the month happens to be. We don’t want to do anything that is going to mark poor DorkySon out as ‘different’.

This is an internal wrangle I’ve had to face as a blogger too. There are requests sent out on a weekly basis for bloggers to post about a certain cause or charity – sometimes just looking to raise awareness, sometimes calling on people to sign a petition, or email their MP.

I have chosen the same approach with my time and blog efforts as I have with my money – I’ve chosen one charity that I am passionate about, and I will support them in as many ways as I can – doing blog posts, tweeting, sharing links on Facebook, attending events and the like. I evaluate requests from other charities on a case-by-case basis, but usually end up saying no. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care – there are so, so many organisations out there doing great work in different areas – just that there are limited hours in the day, and limited ways I can make issues seem relevant to me and my readers. I’ve noticed that the posts I do even for my one chosen charity tend to get much lower numbers of views and comments than other posts on the blog, and I wonder if people are starting to suffer from charity overload. Is there just so much out there that when people see a link is about a charity and they are likely to be asked to take an action after reading it, do they just not even bother clicking through?

It comes back to what I said earlier; charity is a personal thing. We all have causes that are close to our hearts; organisations we want to give our time, or our money, or our bags of old clothes to. We can all do our best to raise awareness of those causes, and persuade others that they are worth supporting, but at the end of the day people will make their own minds up.

Even in the charity sector, it is always good to ask questions, and not to support something unthinkingly.

I stood in my kitchen this morning, and spent half an hour grasping my phone and watching the Stop Kony video that has gone viral today. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it – it’s a brilliantly made campaign film, very emotionally manipulative – and it literally had me in tears. The way it left me feeling was similar to the way I felt after watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth for the first time. A real kicked-in-the-stomach ‘wow, why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?’ moment.

I was about to go and re-post the video on my Facebook page. But then I spotted a link to an article that another friend had posted, which is really critical of the organisation leading the Stop Kony campaign. So I tweeted that link out, urging people to find out a bit more information before they lent their support to the campaign. But then people replied to me with this post, which is full of counter arguments and fully supportive of the Stop Kony campaign, unsurprisingly as it’s written by one of their staffers! And then there’s this post in today’s Independent, and this brilliant blog where the writer really seems to know what he’s talking about.

So I’m left full of questions. I think we can all agree that Joseph Kony is a really bad man. And I think we can agree that there are a lot more people who know who Joseph Kony tonight is than there were last night, which is a good thing. But do we think that a ‘crowd sourced campaign for military intervention’ (as the excellent Ellie Mae O’ Hagan puts it) is really the way to deal with him? I don’t think so.

Hmm.

I somehow seem to have made my way from DorkySon growing a daffodil at nursery to the intricacies of Ugandan politics and international relations without pausing to draw breath. I’m not quite sure how I did that. But perhaps in this world where we all share links and thoughts and ideas so freely, it’s not so strange after all.

On both issues – which relate to how and where we best focus our limited resources – the only conclusion I can draw is that we all need to ask the questions that will help us make more informed choices. Be thoughtful. Be intentional. Be selective. Don’t just give money because everyone else is, or share a link because everyone else.

I’m certainly not going to recommend that you give money to the Stop Kony 2012 campaign – although if you have half an hour to spare you could watch the video and read the articles and then come to your own conclusions (and please feel free to share them here!). Or you could spend that half an hour on something which you feel is more worthwhile; a more valuable use of your time.

Me? I’m off to ponder what we’re going to do with that bloody sponsorship envelope…

***

Update: If you’re as big a geek as I am and you want to read even more articles and opinion pieces about the Kony 2012 campaign, here are some that I’ve found over the last few days.

Jezebel
Securing Rights (which has dozens of pingbacks from other relevant articles)
Africa Is A Country
Foreign Policy
Response to criticism from Invisible Children – the Kony 2012 campaigners
Pieces of Mee
Daily Maverick
Guardian
Polis
New Statesman
The Heir to Blair
Jane Bussmann on Huff Post
Ed Pomfret
Wil Wheaton on Tumblr
War Child
Unmuted: You Don’t Have My Vote
Project Diaspora: Respect My Agency

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29 responses

  1. It gets worse when they start school! I tend to donate small amounts where I can, just so Z gets an understanding that not everyone is as lucky as him. For example last term we donated food to local people who need it and money for the ‘seeds in Africa’ program. Seeds in Africa especially struck a cord with him and he often asks about the people who don’t have enough food. I suppose with children part of it is opening their eyes to the real world. Although nursery and year R are probably too young for that.

    Good luck deciding what to do.

    I must have been under a rock all day as I haven’t seen anything about Kony. Off to read your links now. x

    • Thanks for your thoughts – definitely agree that it’s important to explain the ‘need’ for charity to your children. We do that quite a bit anyway because of DorkyDad’s work. Not good to hear that the pressure gets worse as they get older though! xx

  2. Great post. I mean it. This is exactly how I feel about all of it, from school fundraisers to political campaigns. I care and then … I want to understand more than just clicking and posting and sending money to every envelope that comes home. Awareness is good. Conversation is better. But I don’t feel I’m qualified to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do to get involved. I saw Neil Gaiman tweet something from you today and that’s why I’m here. Thanks for giving your very level-headed opinion on the topic.

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment, and for taking the time to come over and read this. (And yay on the Gaiman RT – I was very excited about that!). Appreciate your thoughts – and definitely agree that conversation is good. There has been SO much coverage of the Kony thing now, and it’s good to see people doing more research before making a decision.

  3. Great post, and I completely agree with you. We get so many charity requests, and they are all so deserving, but I can’t do everything! The geekdaughter has done the daffodil thing too at nursery, and the envelope is still sitting on my desk, empty. It’ll probably stay there too. I have chosen a few charities that are particularly dear to my family and me, and I give regularly to them though a payroll scheme at work.

    This time I tried to talk to the geekdaughter about the envelope, thinking that she could decide for herself if she wanted to ask our stended family members for donations, but she’s still too young and doesn’t get it at all.

    • Thanks – it’s tough isn’t it. You’re right – you can’t do everything – so is it better to do a little bit for every one that asks you, or better to focus your efforts on one or two? I don’t know the answer to that…

  4. The Stop Kony thing was something I was tweeted and asked to support but haven’t as of yet. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t care just that I have too much on at the moment, is that selfish? I hope not!
    I was talking to the lovely Emily at A Mummy Too and she was telling me about when she met Mark Watson and how was saying that he commits to one or two charities a year and that’s it. Not because he doesn’t want to help more but rather that he feels that if someone supports loads of charities that maybe they lose impact.
    So I am sticking to Save the Children and Black Dog Tribe. However I have created a Charity section on LAB where I can write about CLIC Sargent and WSPA for example and I would say to anyone if you want to write abotu a charity, completely credited you are always welcome to guest post on LAB.
    It’s interesting in the power of our voices – google #nameaday or ‘cruelty in a concrete jungle’ and we’ll pop up on the front search page. I think our voices are powerful – we just need to find great ways to use them!
    Sorry for the epic comment and that I have gone totally off on a tangent!

    • No, I don’t think that’s selfish! Better to wait until you can make a proper decision that to blindly RT because you’ve been asked to. That’s interesting from Mark Watson – that’s kinda what I feel too, but I don’t know if that’s grounded in any kind of truth or if that’s just gut instinct! I’ve just been looking at the LAB Charity section just now – that’s a good thing to have. Presumably people who take the time to click through and look at it will be more interested and likely to take action than people who just happen to see a tweet or whatever.

  5. As someone who actually spent time in northern Uganda and saw first-hand a lot of what the video was talking about…I’m prepared to put a minor pause on the eye-rolling and give the guy a chance now the video’s gone viral. Yes, the video was patronising, offensive, arrogant, naive and basically an attempt for the guy to call himself a Messiah. And admittedly I really, really want to punch him. And yes there are a myriad of problems and hypocrisies in the way he runs his organisation. Plus he had no involvement in the US troop deployment he claims credit for, and doesn’t even understand why they were sent in…..basically the self-labeled hero is a numpty. But the video going viral is fabulous. And if it makes any difference at all on how easy it is for Kony to stay hidden, then fantastic, I’m all pro.
    Also, I like this use of advertising and marketing techniques in the charitable sector. I like the concept, and the medium is interesting. This is a method that, with some tweaking, could make a few changes to how, and how successfully, the charitable and NGO sectors can raise issues with the public. And anything that helps give charities and NGOs louder voices is a fabulous thing. I still want to give the man who organised it a very stern lecture, and maybe an anthro lesson or six…

    • I always respect your opinion Missus, so I’m interested to hear you say this. I don’t think we’re too far apart – you’ve got a lot of caveats in there to balance out your support for the video ;-) Did you read the Africa is A Country link above? The writer really, really lays into Jason Russell, in a way which is pretty harsh. I’m not sure that’s necessary – but I do think it’s important that people are thoughtful about what they support, and don’t just share things like this without thinking about it. There is definitely a place for campaigners and campaigning and putting pressure on governments, but I don’t think we want to turn the world into Bad Guy X Factor, where the naughty dictator that gets the most mentions on Twitter is always the one that the US Army gets sent to take out.

      I’m going to be really interested to hear what other NGOs have to say about the thing. I’ve seen lots of journos on Twitter asking to speak to people like Justin Forsyth from Save the Children for their views. To be honest, I think it works two ways – organisations like Invisible Children have a lot to learn from more established NGOs about transparency and ethics… and more established NGOs have a lot to learn from newer, younger orgs about how to run successful and high profile social media campaigns.

      • The Africa Is A Country piece is fab. As is the Independent piece it references. Yes, the author got carried away quite a bit by his anger but….I totally understand why. Did you know that Kony and Museveni used to be best friends and came up through the early ranks of politics together? I was told this by a myriad of Ugandans, who explained it was one of the main reasons Kony hadn’t been captured. When we were there, the LRA was down to fewer than 2000 members, and everyone knew exactly where Kony was (he was still in Uganda at that stage). Yet no one went after him. Just a few months before we arrived a village in South-Eastern Uganda (the war was regional, by 2005 it was exclusively in the North and the South-East was incredibly safe, as far as Uganda could be at that time) had 29 people get their throats slit in their beds at 3 am. We were told by people from that village that the soldiers were dressed as ADF soldiers and were speaking dialects not used in Uganda. Museveni claimed to the world that it was an LRA attack, that Kony was gaining force, and that the US, UK and France needed to restart sending foreign aid to Museveni so he could stop the LRA. The aid restarted. Yet not a single person from that village believes it was the LRA. They all said it was Museveni bringing in outside mercenaries with the specific intention of getting foreign cash. We need to be really careful with complex conflicts we don’t understand and don’t know enough about. There isn’t a clear evil here. Or rather, there are many competing evils.
        And it”s even more complex. Uganda is two countries, with two parliaments. There is Uganda, the political country we’re all aware of. Then there is Buganda, a nation of 52 tribes led by a King, with its own tribal parliament. Many of the tribes in Uganda were, when we were there, not considered Ugandan citizens and had no political representation in the Ugandan parliament. All they had was the tribal parliament, which sadly has little power. We were there specifically to film the Ik, who were being run as a test case that year, striving to be deemed by the politicians as a ‘sub-culture’, the first step to actual political representation….
        There are so, so many issues involved in the Ugandan conflict. It really shouldn’t be underestimated, and it certainly shouldn’t be waded into lightly by a bunch of self-righteous college kids who don’t have their facts straight.

      • See, now what we really need is for you to make a video. An angry performance poem about Uganda. There must be some good words that rhyme with Museveni ;-)

        (Okay, okay, I jest. But seriously. How do you get word out there that the situation is more complicated than it has been presented as? Or does it not really matter – if just a couple of hundred of the millions of people who have watched the video take the time to do the further research, and to give money to organisations that are doing on-the-ground work there, and to put pressure on the international community to do something – is that enough?)

  6. Interesting post. I’m now bracing myself for more little notes from nursery (and from school when our boy is a bit older). My parents used to say no to me being involved in quite a lot of sponsored things, due to lack of money themselves and lack of desire to harrass other folks for money. So I suspect that I will say no to some things too.

    I agree it is not possible to support everything, due to limited time as much as limited money. But I must confess to being a bit random in my decisions as to what to support when.

    • I think I’ve been pretty random in the past too – more often than not I’ve made the decision based on what mood I’ve been in when I’ve been asked! Thanks for commenting :)

  7. Fascinating post. I read this post this morning and bookmarked it so I could come back this evening and watch / read all the articles and the video linked within it. I was going to go to bed an hour and a half ago (what – I’ve been up since 3am!) but am still here, reading. I now feel more informed, more angry and more confused than ever before! But I’m glad I took the time to read all of the pieces you have linked to, because it’s something I WANT to know about. For what it’s worth, I think the video was clearly incredibly well put together, stylish, modern and very “young”. I’m not surprised it went viral. But it’s uber cool style was also what sort of left me with a bit of a funny taste in my mouth and many questions. That said, I have to agree with a previous commenter here, that any video that can make that many people, that quickly, know about Joseph Kony, has to be a good thing. As long as they’re able to continue asking questions afterwards…

    • Thanks for your lovely thoughtful comment. We’re now a week on from this and there are still a lot of articles appearing about Kony in the press – one in the Guardian today about the reaction when the video was screened in Uganda (which I think can be summed up as ‘not good’) – but I also saw something the other day saying that Google searches for Kony have plummeted since the initial video. It’ll be interesting to see how much engagement there is on their ‘day of action’ in April when they’re calling on people to put up posters and the like.

  8. Excellent post. We had a few fund raisers at my son’s preschool and I didn’t participate mainly due to a lack of time. I really like where you are going with your points on Kony. I don’t think there is enough reflection and research on charities and the facts before we tweet/share/whatever.

  9. I always read and enjoy your blog but don’t often comment. This is an excellent post. Aaand I have so much more to say about the ideas that have sprung up that I’d need my OWN blog and a few more hours …. so I’ll stop here. But thanks for the great post!

  10. Don’t know much about Kony and haven’t watched the video, but I DO know about school fundraisers, and I hate to tell you this but I think you’re only just at the start of years of requests for your cash! Schools have three reasons to fundraise…
    1. for their own funds, resources, school trips etc…and this could become more important for schools as budget cuts start to be felt
    2. to make children and young people aware of the lives of others…accurately summed up by others above that this is important but can be done by both schools and parents in other ways
    3. because charities offer stuff/events that schools want, but charities ask schools to fundraise in exchange for what they get
    Number 1 will always be there and it helps schools if parents and local communities offer support to these fundraisers. Yes we pay taxes, but a little additional cash will always help and schools generally use this money wisely to directly enhance pupils’ learning.
    As for 2 and 3, it always amazes me that schools don’t (in my experience), choose a charity or two at the start of the year that they will support, and once this is decided they could turn down any other requests (perhaps with exceptions when there are extraordinary one off world events). Instead most schools decide as they go along, which means you can sometimes be asked for money for more than one cause within weeks of each other. DorkyMum you say you choose a couple of causes important to you to which you consistently donate. Within a group of school staff there will be a variety of people who do the same, putting forward their own views of what is worth supporting, and schools can end up doing too much.
    And with 3, you get the following…
    “I was thinking when we doing the nursery topic on spring, wouldn’t it be nice if the kids planted some bulbs?”
    “Good idea, I saw a leaflet in teh staffroom the other day about planting bulbs for charity. Think we’d have to raise some money as part of it though.”
    “We could raise money. Have you got that leaflet? Let’s go for it.”
    And with that tiny amount of planning, you get the wee envelope home that annoyed you in the first place.

    *I may be doing a huge disservice to DorkySon’s nursery staff who have perhaps planned this activity for months, and if so I apologise.
    **I should declare a professional interest in this theme….I am a teacher!

  11. Pingback: 12-03-12 Love Charity Weekly Showcase | Love All Blogs

  12. I have yet to experience the nursery/school fundraisers, but I feel similarly torn with the near-constant requests for donations to friends’ Just Giving pages. As much as I’d love to be able to support everyone’s fundraising attempts, they seem to be happening very frequently, and if I donated to everyone I’d be bankrupt. So then I’m faced with the dilemma of opting out of all contributions, or chosing to contribute to some and not others. My preference is to support a few chosen charities with bits of money we can spare throughout the year. All that being said, when it comes to donating money to charity, it’s a nice dilemma to have.

    • Oh yes, that’s a whole other issue, and much harder in a way when it is friends and family asking. Eeek. I’m not going to blog about that! xx

  13. Superb post Ruth, you really have got me thinking about all those little bits of money I give to the kids for the charities that the school is supporting. I m using this as the starting point for my intro post for the charity section on LAB.

    Mich x

  14. Pingback: 19-02-12 Love Charity Weekly Showcase | Love All Blogs

  15. Yes, charity is a personal thing. Or really, charitable causes are personal. But charities themselves vary massively in how effective they are. Here, for instance, is an example of two charities working on the same problem, one of which is 25x as effective as the other: buy one, get 24 free! http://giving-evidence.com/2012/01/28/buy-one-get-24-free/

    I’ve now written a book about how to find great charities and how best to support them. I really hope it helps in decisions like yours. http://www.giving-evidence.com/book

  16. Pingback: Goodbye 2012 | dorkymum

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