Opinion: Sat on the horns of dilemma

A little for everyone or a lot for a select few who need it most?

It's an age-old dilemma. We see it in state pensions policy, we see it in the debate about the purpose of universal benefits, and we experience it on all sides of the third sector.

I have been busy of late fundraising for a scheme that will provide grants to young ex-prisoners to enable them to go to college. The problem these scholarships present for most funders is that they have limited resources, and they see the scheme as costing a great deal per head (up to £5,000 per annum per individual), while making only a tiny impact in a country with nigh on 80,000 people in jail. I understand where they are coming from. We all want value for money. One of Margaret Thatcher's most successful ploys was to appeal to the housewife in us all.

But it depends on what you mean by value. Often big grants to projects that include thousands of people mean that everyone gets a fraction of a chance, while significant sums to one individual represents a real chance.

I'm not naive. Some of these scholars will fall by the wayside, but others will succeed and their success will cause ripples for others following on behind.

One of the hardest things to avoid in our sector is pitting one good cause against another. A few coins could save the eyesight of a child in the developing world. A couple of hundred pounds could help a young disabled woman to buy the specialist wheelchair she needs to lead an active life. A few thousand will enable a youngster who has gone off the rails to build a new life through education. How do you choose? How to pick whether to support charities involved in cancer, Aids, mental health, dogs, prisoners or the elderly?

It is impossible. What it comes down to, for activists and donors, is finding a personal resonance. And that is why we go on trying to find those with whom our particular cause will strike a note. It's tough, disheartening and indefensible by any law of economics or utilitarian equation of cause and effect, but we have faith - and that defies any logic.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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