22 November 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The Irish are an innately altruistic people – our collective consciousness, forged by a history encompassing struggle, oppression, privation, hunger and exodus, makes us peculiarly sensitive to suffering and need in our midst and at more distant removes.

Our record of response to international emergencies is exceptional – we contribute conspicuously for our size when appeals are made such as those currently being enacted to provide relief to the victims of the devastating climatic events in the Philippines or the appalling internecine conflict in Syria.

In the global media village of the modern world suffering in distant locations can be brought powerfully home to us, and it is a natural human instinct to respond with support from our pockets – even a modest subscription functions as a necessary palliative to the distress that the images of conflict or disaster somewhere in the world stirs in our hearts.

The economic circumstances we find ourselves in at present have thrown up a significant impediment to our giving instinct, both individually and as a nation.

Our limited incomes compel us to be more discriminating than before when it comes to charitable support, and the questions that we once didn’t need an answer to so insistently – who to give to, how much should we give, where is the money going, how much of it will get to the people who really need it – have become ones that those involved in the collection and dissemination of relief funds are being required to reply to with increasing thoroughness.

Of course it should always be the case that these questions are clearly answered – but there are now such a proliferation of worthy causes that a competitive environment exists among them, cultivating methods and techniques of fund-gathering that can sometimes obscure the information that the giver would like to have.

Local campaigns and causes tend to be very transparent in this regard – the pictures of cheque presentations that regularly occupy column space in this and other regional newspapers represent the fulfilment of the moral obligation to inform those who have supported a charitable or humanitarian endeavour in the community that the transaction they have entered into has been correctly completed and that the funds raised have found their way to their intended destination.

When we are prompted to pop a coin into the collection box or purchase a scratch card of signifying emblem from one of the many national charities that dispatch fund-raisers to our towns and villages from time to time, the fulfilment of the transaction we are entering into is largely taken on trust – we know that we are probably doing good, but the question of how much of what we are giving is going to the cause itself and how much might be expended in meeting administrative costs or defrayed for expenses can be a nagging one.

Anyone who has ever undertaken a charitable endeavour will know that it is never a simple process of getting and giving – a range of ancillary expenses have to be met and the biggest challenge to this type of work is often finding means of meeting the associated costs that preserve intact for the beneficiary the money donated.

Charities that operate on a nationwide or international ambit, and consequently have to engage agents to carry out the physical collecting, inevitably generate a great deal of expenses of this nature – and doubts over how much of what is actually given goes to the cause itself can make people wary of giving subscriptions to what have become known locally as “outside” collections, no matter how sympathetic we might be to the motivation for them.

The limited means at the disposal of the public for charitable giving, and the proliferation of causes, has also regrettably prompted some operators in this area to employ more aggressive techniques of attention-getting and persuasion, such that people sometimes feel that their support is being coerced rather than invited.

Such approaches have long been evident on the streets and in more recent times have gone door-to-door, with householders sometimes being confronted by collectors seeking not merely a cash donation but a commitment to regular subscription that might involve the surrender of personal financial information.

Public concern about aggressive collecting recently prompted Monaghan Town Council to take the unprecedented step for a local authority in this country of introducing a ban on such activity, and on the allied scourge of begging, in the vicinity of the town’s Post Office.

At Monday’s meeting of the Council it was reported that local authorities in other parts of the country were seeking information on the bye-law, presumably for consideration of its enactment in their own areas – suggesting that discontent with aggressive techniques by charitable collectors is nationwide.

The solution arrived at by the Monaghan authority might seem extreme, but it was prompted predominantly by the legitimate concern that people collecting their pensions were sometimes being the subject of predatory focus by a small number of collectors – and sometimes beggars – who saw them as “easy meat”.

Commendable in its specific context, this sort of approach to the problem has obvious limitations – it can easily be misconstrued as antagonistic to particular causes, and its effect can merely be to prompt a migration of the practices being objected to on to nearby locations outside the ambit of the prohibition.

It lies within the gift of those charitable causes who spread their net nationwide to provide the most effective means of addressing the public concerns that have arisen.

The representative body to which all reputable national charities are aligned should introduce and enforce a code of practice that requires the prominent display at collection points of a percentage breakdown of how much of each € being collected goes to the cause itself, and how much goes to meet expenses.

The public being asked for their support are entitled to this information and should receive it on the spot.

A similar binding code should also be introduced that prohibits the buttonholing of the public, and other more aggressive collection methods – including some of the door-to-door techniques employed that smack of the salesman more than the Samaritan!

We are entering upon a season when traditionally the demands on our charity are at their most intense – the least we deserve from those who seek it is clarity of information and respect for the spontaneity of our instinct for giving.

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