Belfast Telegraph

Why I'm begging the charity collectors to give us all a break

By Lindy McDowell

Charity begins at home, they say. Maybe best kept there? I am all for giving. And, in most circumstances, collecting. What I object to is the emotional blackmail thing that makes every trip to the shops these days feel like a re-run of the Queen distributing alms on Maundy Thursday.

If you were to carry enough change for every giving eventuality you'd need Securicor for back-up.

A typical day at the shops ...

First up – the entrance door "sellers" of the single laminated Big Issue. I'll be honest. I didn't use to give to these women (they are mostly women) on the grounds that giving to them was only increasing the likelihood of their being forced to maintain their bleak vigil on the streets.

I thought – I still think – someone much more devious profits from what little they collect. But I give to them now because, God help them, I just feel so sorry for them. Simple as that.

Anyway, it's once you're inside the store that the begging (sorry, collecting) really begins in earnest. Now, I know charities need our help in these difficult times. There are many, many genuinely good causes, large and small.

It's the cynical corporate manipulation I can't stand. The "for every one you buy we'll give 50 pence to charity" thing. Especially when every one you buy costs £30. And especially when you suspect the price has previously been hoicked that extra 50 pence to cover the store's 'contribution' anyway.

It's the staff members in fancy dress prowling the aisles rattling their buckets. The staff member flogging raffle tickets so that he or she can take part in a 'charity' walk of the Great Wall of China. (Why not do it at home and contribute the fare to Beijing to your chosen charity, as well as any sponsorship you raise?)

In the next shop there's an extra offer at the till. "Would you like to buy a pen for ..." Some charity you've never heard of. But "part of the proceeds from the sale" of this pen you neither want nor need will, you are assured, be going to its coffers.

At the supermarket, no sign this time of the bloke on an exercise bike cycling maniacally to rave tunes and the background beat of rattling buckets.

But the bag collectors at the check-outs are out in traditional force. I don't really mind the bag packers. That much ...

It was originally a clever idea. And mostly it's youth groups and schools, so you don't mind throwing a few coins their way. If only they'd advise those enthusiastic 12-year-olds that a four-pack of bean cans slammed down hard on top of a fresh Veda sort of defeats the advantages of the bag-packing service.

I try to give with a generous heart, honestly I do. But down the years I've become increasing cynical. Especially when I read about the amount lavished on various charities' administration costs and the mega salaries of some bosses.

When I was younger I signed up to sponsor children in Third World countries. All these years on, I'm not sure if I have actually been paying to help educate some deserving wean or just to cover the postage, stationery and admin costs of the countless additional begging letters the charity concerned has sent me down the years.

The way charities raise and spend money has changed dramatically. Charities would argue that it has had to. Difficult times and all that.

My heart tells me this is only right. But after a day at the shops, bombarded from every direction by pleas, all I'm feeling is a bad case of compassion fatigue.

To put the tin lid on it, there's a man in the street asking for money for 'mental health'. That's all it says on the tin. Plain white label. Two words. Mental health. Is that a charity? Possibly ... probably ...

Who really knows?

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