Thursday, 15 December 2011

Feel The Guilt

Seeing Red and feeling Cross, this ‘charity’ has gone too far 

By Mark Cantrell

THE letter landed on the doormat with all the urgency of a final demand, but this was no stern warning from some self-imposed authority barking a bellicose warning on the consequences of my fiscal shortcomings.

No, this letter was a guilt trip, or maybe that should be a guilt trap: if there was any stick, then it was intended to be a club made of my own guilt, and I would be the one to wield the cudgel until I saw the error of my ways.

There was an easy way out, of course, and no real need for me to beat myself up. All I had to do was reach into my pocket to ease my conscience with a slick donation. By now, I was no stranger to these carefully-packaged demands. I knew them for the false messengers they were, but there had always been a latent sense of guilt, some stirring of the conscience that left me feeling like a heel on prior occasions, when I refrained from accepting the invitation to open my wallet.

When this latest package arrived, however, the last traces of these sentiments died a quick death, burned away in the heat of anger.

This time, they’d just gone too far.

Inside the pregnant envelope, there was the typical printed missive urging me to help the latest real and genuine victims of disaster, both human and natural, but it came accompanied by ‘gifts’ that left me feeling quietly enraged. This, I instinctively felt, isn’t what charity is meant to be about.

For all the hype, there is no denying the needs of those people who find their misery paraded within these brochures of grief and guilt, but they are quickly turned into a kind of misery-porn brand image, rendered somehow less real by the insidious piety of stock-in-trade professionalised concern.

Yet these are real people, real lives, and they deserve better than to be rendered down into brochure-packaged stock figures intended to tug our heart-strings according to some formulaic programme of publicity.

The trouble is the world is filled with horrors and misery, each and every one of the victims, or the survivors, are as worthy as the next, until our heads and hearts can drown in the wash of grief. Add to this tragedy that we – the more fortunate – cannot save the world entire and can only do so much. Where does it all end? Where does it start?

The Red Cross would have me begin with their latest cause of concern, but that’s precisely how this all began.
Lost in a strange city, looking for my to the rail station, one of the organisation’s ‘chuggers’ – charity muggers – as they are called, caught me off-balance and got me. She was good at her job; I couldn’t deny the worthiness of the cause and before I knew it she had my details.

Afterwards came the hard-sell phone call. Another dedicated, sincere and – I have no doubt – genuine young woman working as a volunteer in the Red Cross call centre urged me to take a standing order of regular donations to the machinery of the charity. I held my ground and refrained. There is more to needy causes than the Red Cross, and for all our relative comfort here in the UK (current austerity issues notwithstanding), we cannot know how secure we are from redundancy and the P45, nor stretch our restricted incomes endlessly. After the Red Cross, who next? For they all demand much the same these days.

So, I held back from committing a monthly donation, but after the call ended I saw no reason not to make a donation. Out came the chequebook and off it went. Little did I realise I had effectively donated a goodly portion of my soul. More fool me you might thing. Not long after, so began the repetitive begging letters, the stream of guilt-tripping emails, the drain of marketing that had left me so utterly filled with disdain for the whole process. And now this, the last straw, the missive that stirred not disdain – but anger and dismay.

Inside the brochure-wadded envelope there lurked the trinkets of the marketing trade: the baubles and bait intended to stir my feel-good spirit even as it begged my guilt for more of my limited disposable income. Is charitable giving really supposed to be a transaction?

Charity, one might say, has clearly become consumerism, and it's the very people who need help and assistance that somehow become the commodity traded. Here's a tenner for an orphaned Haitian; thanks very much for the merchandise, but is there any chance you'll BOGOF anytime soon?

Well, as for my 'purchases', the greetings cards were nothing new, I’d seen them before, and the complimentary teabags left me befuddled, but it was the badge that finally triggered my anger. This was no cheap, tinpot piece of merchandising but a quality, enamelled item intended to be worn with pride. It was the second such trinket that had clattered heavy across my desk after ripping open a Red Cross packet. It was just too much.

I felt the snarl rise from my gullet with an angry clarity: “I didn’t join a fucking club!”

But I have, haven’t I? Whether I want it or not, I made my donation, and somehow that’s made me a member of a fraternity I never realised existed until the merchandising began to land upon my doorstep.

How much, one wonders, in the wake of all these ‘gifts’, did the needy gain from my donation, or have I simply paid for the envelopes, the postage, the paper, the design and printing, the brochures and the tea bags and the enamel badges? Had I known what I was truly paying for, I would have kept my cheque to myself, or thrown some change into a bucket collection (as is my usual mode of giving).

Doubtless thousands have inadvertently joined this strange club: that’s a hefty bill for crap that might have been better spent on aid for people who had even less use for enamel badges but rather more need for medical aid, tents, food, clothing, shelter, you know, the usual disaster relief – even those teabags wouldn't have gone amiss there.

These days more than ever, a charity must promote itself and its causes, but there are ways and there are ways. The organisations carry overheads needed to operate. This I can accept, but I did at least have some faith that a goodly proportion of my donation would go to the needy. In the wake of this last ‘generous’ package I could not help but wonder if even a single penny had gone to where it was needed.

One might be tempted to take the charitable (sic) view that the merchandising represents an organisation that is trying too hard, but I wasn’t looking for gifts, it didn't need to send me these unwanted presents. I certainly wasn’t looking to feel good about myself, or partake of the dubious pseudo-Catholic-guilt-fest of charitable wheedling.

Any doubts I had, any misgivings and pangs of guilt I might have felt at failing to donate further had finally vanished. I realised that I was most certainly not going to donate to the Red Cross ever again. This hard sell had finished off any good faith I felt towards the organisation.

The endless flurry of mailshots had been bad enough, slowly chipping away at my regard, but as the paperwork began to weigh ever heavier with gifts and branded merchandising, I realised that the charitable machine had long since become subsumed into the marketing machine. The Red Cross was dead; in its place had arisen a zombie charity, existing only to feed on the compassion and charity of the unsuspecting human population it trawled.

Such is marketing, no matter the sector: it kills what it claims to promote, leeching its soul and its substance until nothing remains but a glossy branded shell, but that’s another story.

I forget the particular cause that stirred my original donation. There are so many worthy causes. But like many people I donate as and when I can. Charity isn’t – or shouldn’t be – about generosity, or about the giver, nor should it be about the intermediary – the charity – but the recipient. It’s about the poor sod who needs the assistance of strangers and we give what we can afford, making – hopefully – a collective difference. Giving, indeed any kind of charitable act, certainly isn’t about joining some kind of feel-good club.

When charity comes to be about the giver, then it ceases to be charity at all – it is simply ‘alms for the poor’: a vehicle to keep the needy in their place, to grease the wheels of the charity machine, a validation of middle class virtue, a self-congratulatory assertion of our ‘superior’ position within society. That’s demeaning to all concerned and frankly the people who need help deserve better.

Disasters and humanitarian need come in many shapes and forms, some small scale and personal, others horrifyingly vast and collective; human need begins at home and extends across the globe, but the reality of their need is no less for distance or scale. We help as and when we can, according to our inclination and our ability. Tomorrow, after all, we ourselves might be the ones who need aid and assistance – the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan reveals how vulnerable we are, even those of us snug in our perception of First World security.

As for the Red Cross, the money I gave wasn’t much in the scheme of things, but it was intended at least to contribute to alleviating somebody’s suffering. Pity, then, that it evidently went on trash.

Charity is certainly not about enamel badges and brand management; it certainly isn’t about complimentary teabags. As it is, I guess I can say that I’ve had my money’s worth out of the Red Cross. And that is a crying shame.

Still, the tea was quite nice. Cheers.

Mark Cantrell,
3 April 2011

Copyright © April 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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