Mother Teresa, me and the case of the made-up prayer

Good fundraisers are risk-takers, writes our columnist - but they need an ethical kick up the backside every now and again

Fundraisers cut corners a bit in order to 'just get on and do it', says Martin Edwards
Fundraisers cut corners a bit in order to 'just get on and do it', says Martin Edwards

Good fundraisers are risk-takers - they take chances and try new things. But making things happen is an art, not a science, so fundraisers use numbers that feel about right - an imprecise approach that horrifies their finance colleagues. Fundraisers excite donors with talk of grand plans that haven't yet been substantiated. They cut corners a bit, because that's the way to just get on and do it.

I was a fundraiser for two decades, so I've walked this blurred line where the end can justify the means. But at some point the charity's gatekeepers must give an ethical kick up the backside to the risk-takers, such as the time when I disgraced myself with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

High-value lots

It was years ago, when I was working for Save the Children and the humanitarian nun was one of the world's most famous figures. My assistant Lynn and I were seeking high-value lots for an auction. This is not a task for shrinking violets - who dares wins, and all that - so we decided to ask Mother Teresa to write a prayer, which we thought would fetch quite a sum.

Deviously, we asked Lynn's eight-year-old daughter, Hayley, to write the letter to Mother Teresa, who surely wouldn't refuse a small child. Hayley agreed to be exploited in this way, and Mother Teresa duly replied. But what came back were a few words of prayer in a letter to Hayley that was mainly about Mother Teresa's hopes for the world's children - not really suitable to auction, even if we bribed Hayley to give it up.

Salvaging something from the wreckage, we offered to give a talk at Hayley's primary school, using the prayer as the focal point. "Please remember," I said to Lynn as she went home the night before, "the last thing you must do is forget to bring the prayer."

Dishonest and unethical

Alas, that was indeed the last thing she did. So there we were with five minutes to go before our talk, literally without a prayer, with Hayley and the whole school waiting. Whereupon Lynn said: "Can't you just make it up?"

"I can't do that," I spluttered. "It's dishonest, it's unethical." "We've got four minutes, Martin." "It's worth a try; get me a pen and paper."

And so it came to pass that I found myself deceiving a host of small children, reading some cliched neo-biblical tosh that I had just scribbled. I hoped to God that Hayley, who realised I was faking it, wouldn't blow the gaff. Showing wisdom beyond her years, she kept her mouth shut, bless her. But I can still see the quizzical expression on her face as she discovered that adults have feet of clay.

We deserved an ethical kicking that day. Even so, I still feel that in the world of charities it is the risk-takers, not the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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