The contrasting approaches of two leading UK charities towards the ever-increasing problem of alcohol consumption shone a rather harsh light upon the voluntary sector.
Alcohol Concern used the New Year period to encourage people to give up booze for the month of January, with the following words: "It’s not about never drinking again, it's just the perfect opportunity for all of us to take a breather and get thinking about our drinking. We think people will feel better, sleep better, save money and they may also lose weight." Implicit in this statement from Emily Robinson, the charity's director of campaigns, was the hope that all these positive outcomes would convince people to stick to safer levels of consumption after January 2014. So far, so good.
However, looking to repeat the fundraising success of Dryathlon 2013, Cancer Research UK asked the Great British Drinker to raise sponsorship for his or her 31-day abstinence. Anthony Newman, director of marketing, explained the charity’s motivation thus: "We know giving up alcohol and taking part in Dryathlon will really test some people's willpower, but we also know it's something lots of people already do successfully. So, whether you're already planning to give up alcohol for January or looking to take on an extra challenge in the new year, why not sign up to Dryathlon and swap your lager for a latte, safe in the knowledge that the money you raise will be helping us to beat cancer sooner."
CRUK have expertly identified "something lots of people already do" and harnessed the power of that inevitably short-lived New Year’s resolution to boost their income. Dryathlon 2013 saw over 35,000 people raise £4m for the charity. Whether any of them continued living a healthier life would appear to be immaterial, because this is a fundraising event, first and foremost. The Dryathlon may be responsible for briefly increasing awareness about our dangerously high levels of alcohol consumption, but that is a distant, secondary concern to establishing a date in the calendar which will bring in much-needed sponsorship.
If this sounds harsh, consider the fact that the ‘Dryathlete’ who raises the most money wins prizes of a weekend stay in an hotel, an electronic device and a year’s supply of grooming products. There is no prize for anyone who remains abstinent, or within the healthier 21 units male/18 units female weekly levels promoted by successive governments for at least the past quarter of a century.
But then Dryathlon is ultimately another Children In Need, Comic Relief or Race for Life, where the real "challenge" is the smashing of fundraising targets. Like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or running the London Marathon, it merely reinforces the modern culture of ‘charity’ purely as event-based income generation.
Surely a health charity’s first duty is to leave people safe in the knowledge that it is helping them to significantly reduce the risks of alcohol-exacerbated disease, rather than implying that short-term abstinence is "helping us to beat cancer sooner."
Richard Chambers is fundraising manager at the Kenward Trust, which offers people the opportunity to transform their lives by addressing issues of substance misuse, homelessness and resettlement