Opinion: Mendips Mardi Gras is a charitable flop

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

After a bit of good news from Somerset last week about the success of its community foundation, this week it's bad news from way out west, where the carnival season has just closed, amply demonstrating how not to raise money for charity.

For this lesson, forget carnival queens lurching about on lorries decorated with crepe paper; think Mardi Gras in the Mendips, a cider-fuelled Caribbean calypso, or Copacabana with Cheddar. And imagine miles of mechanical floats with blinding light shows, staggering sound systems and energetic dancers parading through the towns of the West Country at night, complete with marching bands, majorettes and costumed walking displays, watched by a million or more people.

Dozens of clubs, each with scores or hundreds of supporters, spend all year designing and building floats that can cost up to £50,000. For themes, they maul popular culture, from hit songs to film tributes, with a mix of camp and chav. From the floats to police overtime and road closures, it's a seven-figure event in costs, generating about £40m for local firms.

And how much goes to charity? This year's biggest parade, at Bridgwater, collected £30,000 on the night, while others bring in about £10,000-£15,000.

In all, these events raise about £250,000, divided among many causes, despite annual exhortations for spectators to give more.

Tiny sums are not the only problem, for clubs fundraise constantly to pay for their floats, soaking up time and money that could go to other causes. Carnival night donations of loose change - after the burgers, beers and candyfloss - are made without Gift Aid, but still give people the illusion that they are doing their bit for charity.

The only positive point for charities is that the carnivals and clubs rarely get organised enough to secure major grants or big corporate sponsorship.

They'd fail any arts or culture test, so the Arts Council isn't interested, and have yet to get their heads around the community-diversity-inclusion-latest-political-fashion rules of the lottery game.

So is this an astonishing spectacle but a charitable washout that ought to forget rattling tins altogether? Probably. But it also raises this question: how many charity events and activities, from bizarre stunts and sponsored malarky involving baked beans to black-tie balls, should never happen because, in real terms - staff and volunteer time, up-front costs, potential risks and more - they are just not worth it?

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