Opinion: Buerk overstates power of the individual

Have you caught that advert being repeated on the TV about giving to charity in your will?

It's from the promotional consortium Remember a Charity, hosted by the Institute of Fundraising, and features the Fozzie Bear of British broadcasting, Michael Buerk.

You may recall that Buerk was the BBC reporter who, given the chance to explain how Ethiopia's man-made famine of the mid-80s was a combination of drought and the government's denial of food as a weapon in its civil war, botched it comprehensively and set a monstrous agenda by blethering on about "a Biblical famine" and "the closest thing to hell on earth", as if it were just an act of God.

For the ad, Buerk is seen watching news footage – images of Mandela, the tsunami, Tiananmen Square tank man, a kitten, Geldof meeting Mother Teresa – and intoning that he will remember a charity in his will, with this non sequitur: "Because I believe individuals, not governments, really change the world."

Let's forget for a moment that legacy fundraising has underperformed in recent years when compared with the soaring economy, property prices and the value of wills. And leave aside that fundraising's overriding challenge is not philanthropic grave-robbing in finding dead donors, but getting more of the living to give regularly, with Gift Aid, because the same money in life not only arrives earlier but has up to 40 per cent extra free.

Back to Buerk. As someone whose well-paid professional life has been spent mainly in a powerful, government-funded institution that offers him the luxury of broadcasting world-changing images to millions, it seems ungrateful for this media hound to bite the hand that has fed, watered, washed, deloused and sheltered him.

And though no one would doubt the power of individuals to inspire others, surely it is confusing, inaccurate and a breathtaking counsel of despair to write off governments or states as agents for change, whether for good or ill.

Buerk may be waving a flag for lone warriors, but he is not actually urging those facing their mortality to give cash to inspiring individuals.

Instead, he wants the dosh for charities, those organisations frequently founded by individuals who have realised how little they can achieve alone.

And all too often the charity soon gets rid of its founder as being the one thing standing in the way of it changing the world. But that's another story.

Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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