The problem with charity

The current trend for ‘social media charity’ is not sustainable argues SEBASTIAN FULLER ST ARROMAN

als apathy charity Chips Facebook homeless kony2012 queen social media zuckerberg

Back in the holidays, on my way to a summer job, I passed a man sitting outside Shoreditch High Street underground station. His head was held down, he was sitting on a newspaper and his clothes looked distinctly unwashed.

As I walked past in the crowd, trying to avoid being elbowed by the well fitted suit next to me, I couldn’t tell if he was asleep, awake, or dead.

And you know what? I didn’t stop to check. Nor did any of the other fifty or so people who just got off the same train as I did. The train ride, by the way, cost me £1.80.

£1.80, jolly good deal

This isn’t a unique occurrence either: there’s a man who regularly sits outside my local station in the same fashion. I see him so often that I could pick him out of a crowd even though I’ve never spoken to him.

I even worry slightly if he isn’t there one day, and yet the closest I’ve ever come to trying help improve his life was when I once drunkenly bought too many chips on the way home and offered him the leftovers.

I felt like a fucking hero for giving him those chips: £2.60 I think they cost.

But it’s not just people on the streets that remind me of the need in the world.

Canada Water is regularly packed with charity collectors holding donation pots. National Rail trains seem to have at least four charitable cause posters on every carriage. A back page spread on a Metro across from me one day. An internet advert. A coffee shop sign. During card payments. I don’t watch TV, but when I did they were there too.

Food for thought

They’re all important causes, and noone in their right mind would say that the people they fight for didn’t need or deserve help. But that’s kind of the problem.

We’re bombarded with charity now, and pretty much any of us could donate to any cause we fancied in just a matter of seconds if we wanted to. I didn’t give a moments thought to the train fare or the cost of the chips, why not give money as frivolously to charities. But then again, what if I did?

It might make me feel good for a bit, or it might make me seem like a kind and compassionate person on social media. Hell, it might even really help someone somewhere.

But what it won’t do is stop the requests. It won’t even reduce them. And for every cause I donate to, there are a hundred other equally important causes that I’m not donating to. A hundred other causes I have to ignore and a hundred other causes that I have to get used to ignoring.

So I do, and after a while walking past a charity collector on the street doesn’t seem so bad.

Move along Zuckers

We’re forced into being apathetic because we’re overwhelmed, and because that makes us feel powerless, unacknowledged and unrewarded. We have so many requests placed at our door that we have to turn the majority away, and that sets a very dangerous precedent.

By forcing turning away to become a familiar feeling, charities are teaching us, step by step, how to ignore them. And then, when we get used to ignoring charity’s pleas, it takes something as special as someone pouring a bucket of ice cold water over themselves to snap us out of it.

So my question is what happens then when ice challenges and viral videos become commonplace; when every charity is encouraging you to go out, do something mildly ridiculous in front of your friends and give a few quid for the privilege?

We might all just start giving more, inspired by a near constant wave of social media activism at the levels we’ve seen for Kony2012 and ALS.

Or, we might start ignoring them too, like the hundreds of internet petitions that no one can even really remember if they signed or not. And then what?