Matthew Sherrington: An International Day of Charity that doesn't cut it. What sort of charity are we talking about?

Tying the International Day of Charity to the death of Mother Teresa holds up as an example an out-moded approach to charity, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

The UN International Day of Charity is on 5 September. You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t know that. It was inaugurated in 2013, "in recognition of the role of charity in alleviating humanitarian crises and human ‎suffering within and among nations, as well as of the efforts of charitable organisations ‎and individuals".

All well and good. And let’s face it, after a year of mis-steps and scrutiny of charities in the UK, couldn’t we do with a day to mark and celebrate not only the role of charities, but the many people who make it all possible? A day that reminds us that charity is ultimately about the actions of individuals – whether giving money, volunteering or taking other action. That reminds us it’s the concern and commitment of individuals to making the world a better place that have made charities the organisations they are today and that what gets #changedbycharity is done because of them?

Well, maybe. But this day isn’t it. The date was set to recognise the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, who became a saint this week after arranging a couple of miracles. Quite apart from hanging a day of charity around someone as singularly controversial as Mother Teresa (dubious friends and politics, fundamentalist social views, questionable charitable provision), it holds up as an example for recognition an out-moded approach to charity that is very out of step with the challenges, concerns and values of today’s world.

A recent, rather unfortunate interview with a soup kitchen showed such views are still around. Asked about a political aspiration to end for good the problem of homelessness that drives people to sleep rough, the organisers said they found this "insulting", both to the charities that did good work and to the homeless themselves, for offering a glimmer of hope that couldn’t be delivered. Rather a depressing and fatalistic outlook.

More extremely, Mother Teresa believed suffering was a gift from God and would not make pain relief available in her clinics so as not to sully that "gift". It's some irony that as a saint she’ll be called upon to offer miracle cures.

Religion isn’t my thing, but I prefer the style of the Brazilian "Bishop of the Slums", Dom Hélder Câmara, who died 17 years ago last week. (You can take your pick of saints. I checked, and he’s also already on the canonisation conveyor belt). It was he who famously said "when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

But the difference in view illustrates the spectrum of what falls under "charity", from barely welfare-ist provision to campaigning and engagement in policy to achieve lasting change. As Nelson Mandela said: "Fighting poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."

Personally, if we had to only recognise charity on one day a year, I’d hang my hat on Mandela Day, marking his birthday, with its belief that "each individual has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better", and its exhortation to "take action, inspire change". Even better, its call to action is to "make every day a Mandela Day". I do prefer my charity to add up to more than small change.

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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