Debra Allcock Tyler: We're not awful for asking for donations

It's just that some people don't like to be asked, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

My father used to play Santa at a workplace children's Christmas party. The parents would give him a present to give to their child "from Santa". He then gave every child a 20p piece from his own pocket, telling them the money was also a gift.

He told them they were lucky because there were other children in the world who were very poor, so they could keep the money if they wanted to or they could put it in the bucket. Then it would be used to buy presents for those children who didn't have any. It was up to them.

And what did they do? Year after year I witnessed these gorgeous kids putting their 20p pieces in the "poor children" bucket. They had learned about being asked to give and they had learned how to give.

So I am always baffled by those who say they have a right not to be asked to give. Sure, legally I suppose they do. But morally? Do we have a moral right to "not give"? Because all the evidence shows that if we're not asked, we don't give. And, further, in all the furore, we're also forgetting that people don't give to charities. A charity is just a vehicle that serves a cause, whether that is people, pandas or the planet. And this is why I'm so surprised and disappointed at the lack of discussion about the reason we're asking for money and support in the first place – the beneficiaries. It's all been about the "donor experience", as if somehow our job is to serve donors. It's not. It's to serve beneficiaries. Donors matter, but they're a means to an end, not the end itself.

We're told that when people complain about being asked for money, it's evidence of how awful charities are. Actually (with the exception of a small number of complaints that have been upheld), it's just evidence, for me, that some people don't like being asked. And, honestly, if there weren't complaints I'd wonder whether we were doing our jobs properly. If shocking donors into action, or putting politicians' noses out of joint, is necessary in the service of our causes, then so be it. And before I get a flood of vile invective online, I am absolutely not condoning aggressive tactics – I am simply pointing out that we have to ask. Now it's going to be harder to do so, and it certainly won't be charities that suffer; it'll be the beneficiaries – in the short term, at least.

But once the maelstrom of negative publicity abates and we've stopped shooting ourselves in the foot (and stabbing each other in the back) I confidently predict that giving will go back to normal. There are tranches of thorough research that provide evidence that people are hard-wired to be altruistic. When asked, most of us simply cannot help but be generous.

I've been reading the essays of the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, who in his writing about loop quantum gravity and the human condition says: "We realise that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate. The earth is not flat. It is not stationary. It is part of our nature to love and to be honest." My dad taught those kids that.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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