Four hundred causes? Just four were too many for me

How many good causes can anyone usefully help, asks our columnist Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The recent retirement of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, reminded me of the curious fact that he was patron of more than 400 charities. This seems mightily impressive; but hang on a second - how many good causes can anyone usefully help? I would challenge anyone to even remember the names of 400 organisations, let alone know what difference their support has made to them.

Judith Rich, a wise charity sector expert, once told me that the first thing she does when asked to lend her name to anything is to ask what they want her to do because, in most cases, nominal support without active involvement is as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Similarly, some charities are frustrated if celebrities lend their names but decline to commit time and effort to the cause. And some celebrities must be frustrated if they agree to be patrons but aren't asked to do anything. Their names might raise some awareness for a while but, without action, what does that achieve?

Active involvement principle

The Archbishop of Canterbury's website says that he actively supports 54 good causes: no mean feat, even for someone with celestial energy. Adhering myself to this active involvement principle, but with no divine jump-start, I recently became swamped when I agreed to help just four other causes apart from my day job.

Two have been great. I joined the board of a social enterprise providing careers guidance for young people and I became an adviser to a charity that combats child trafficking. I enjoy both roles and being a non-executive gives me a new perspective on the often delicate relationship between charity staff and trustees.

Joy mixed with relief

The third wasn't of my making. I came home from work one day to be told by my wife that she had volunteered me to raise the funds for a church youth club in our town. How much do they need, I asked her? She replied: "£100,000." I can't print my response.

I took it on begrudgingly. Thankfully, the management committee mistook my surliness for being intensely thoughtful. Several trust applications and a certain amount of arm-twisting later, my feeling on hitting the target was a pinch of joy mixed with a huge dose of relief.

I must have seemed even more intensely thoughtful when they thanked God instead of me for generating the money. Perhaps they would have preferred the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I gave up a fourth voluntary role for other reasons, but that too was a relief because it's easy to spread yourself too thinly. The motto for endorsing good causes ought to be "no involvement without commitment", and wise people, when asked to lend their name, should always ask: "But what do you want me to do?"

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

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