We recently completed a family challenge. Our own idea – it was a wholesome bonding experience involving physical endeavour, inspiration, initiative, planning and organisation. Friends mostly assumed their dual stance of being moderately impressed whilst assuring us, “You’re mad.” But more than one person immediately asked, “Did you do it for charity?”

I was dismayed. Is this how we determine worth these days: whether or not something is for charity? Not the difficulty or effort involved (is participation in an organised event with all the logistics arranged for you more valuable just because it is for charity?). No consideration of what the charity’s aims are or how well it achieves them.

The local newspaper would suggest so: across several weeks, the only articles celebrating success involved sports clubs, business or charity fundraising. In the London marathon, charities hold nearly 40% of the spaces, just waiting for runners to fill them, when the chance of a space through the general ballot is less than 1 in 7. A recent charity circular began, “If you know anyone who is looking to do a challenge and wants to find a charity to support…” Whilst fundraising can be an additional motivator or a way to commemorate the life of a loved one, I just couldn’t help reading it as, “Why bother taking on a challenge if you don’t raise money doing it?” Whatever happened to our pioneering spirit, or success having merit for its own sake?

I canvassed friends more widely. We all recognise the dependence of charities on volunteers and fundraising, and donate financially. Some of us (myself included) volunteer large amounts of time to good causes. So I was startled by the vehemence of the responses.

Many were annoyed at businesses, venues or individuals making money out of charitable events rather than, in the spirit of the event, giving their services for free. (I still remember the 1994 Flora Aerobathon when our hard-earned sponsorship went as part-payment to all those who stood to make money out of the event, before everything collapsed into liquidation. Anyone feel aggrieved at the BBC’s payments each year to the Children In Need presenters?) There was discontent at paid fundraisers – people paid to encourage others to part with their money – especially when they are poorly briefed or unable to answer basic questions. The free gift (often a branded pen) routinely sent out by some charities was similarly frowned upon. Whilst these are force multipliers – pay a fundraiser, a figurehead, a venue, and distribute low-cost advertising material (e.g., pens), in order to release even more money – it somehow feels wasteful and wrong. I’m told that, after deducting pay and overheads, frequently less than 50% of raised funds finally make it to the ‘front line’.

Many recoiled at the idea of getting onto a charity’s ‘list’ (or multiple charity lists through joint appeals) and being pestered as a ‘soft touch’ ever after. Shortly after a text donation, you can find yourself receiving multiple texts from various charities. Some people feel they must always ‘give something’ and, for them, the pressure of requests can be uncomfortable or overwhelming. It was cited as a contributing factor in the tragic death of long-time poppy seller, Olive Cooke.

What about how the money is spent? After having donated (paid off our guilt?), few of us question this too closely. Does the charity achieve its aim in a value-for-money way or waste excessively through inefficiency, unclear remit, duplication across charities, or an inability to properly find and engage with beneficiaries? Some charities pay their senior staff at competitive market rates, to help attract and retain effective managers and ensure a well-run organisation, which can actually save the charity money overall. Yet it still feels wrong for some individuals to derive significant financial benefit from something the rest of us are expected to donate to.

For Raleigh International and similar, why must the individual raise significant funding as well as give of their time and hard work? Is it beyond the bounds of possibility for the charity to combine people to take part in expeditions with funding streams from different sources? I’ve heard it said that it is the money that is wanted really, not the person who comes with it as, “They have their own local people who can do the work.” Rather insulting as that may be, isn’t there a longer-term view that the youngsters inspired and welcomed to give of their time today (without fundraising) would tend to fondly remember the cause and become the major proponents and benefactors of the future?

Are charities even needed? If the cause is worthwhile, shouldn’t the Government fund it out of (increased) taxation? Or is this alarming idea far too ‘nanny state’ and charity as a system of ‘voluntary taxation’ simply the least bad option?

Charity: pillar of humanity or big business? What do you think?