John Knight: What is 'good'? Knowing how best to help people when they're falling apart

Charity means helping people without making them feel grateful, says our columnist

When I joined the Office of the Third Sector Advisory Body last year, I gave its chair, Baroness Jill Pitkeathley, a solemn undertaking that I would never write about its business in this column. I am about to breach that undertaking.

When the body was first announced, there was a great deal of muttering about it being made up of the great and the good. In fact, the membership sweeps across the now diverse range of third sector and broader civil society interests. Social enterprise is well represented, and its needs and interests have been well argued. Service delivery organisations (get used to it, all you doubters out there - it is a fact of life) make pithy and direct assaults. Charity law and financial interests also have a heavyweight presence. So the critics were wrong.

This preamble may be confusing, but forgive me: it is a cunning device to lead you to my dénouement. The word ‘good' - serving the desired purpose or end, according to my trusty dictionary - is apposite, as became abundantly clear at my most recent meeting at Admiralty House. In what was described as a "comfort break", I decamped to the disabled toilet, where I became even more disabled than usual. I literally fell apart. My prosthetics unexpectedly disassembled.

This is not surprising since, by and large, I am held together with sealing wax and string. I tried vainly to remedy the situation but succeeded only in making a bad situation worse. So here I was, marooned in two pieces in a toilet at Admiralty House. And to make matters worse, my trousers were around my ankles.

What should I do? Adversity sharpens the mind. I decided to phone one of the other members of the body for assistance. But who? I quickly defined my selection criteria. Somebody male; somebody I knew; and somebody from a social care background. I picked my way around the faces at the table. Then I made my choice and summoned salvation.

There was a knock on the door and in strode a man, completely unabashed by the scene of devastation awaiting him, with the salutation: "My good fellow, what on earth goes on here?" He did his job with efficiency and without being patronising, and strode out again. Sir Nicholas Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, exemplified what is good not just about the advisory body but about the sector as a whole. Get the job done. Don't make people feel grateful. Be good in heart and deed.

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