Why, For me, Charity Does Not Begin at Home, or Anywhere else

donations-1041971_1920CN: Cancer treatment, street harassment

It’s 8pm and the doorbell rings. The doorbell never rings unless pizza is expected. I’m too short to see through the peep hole and too anxious to ignore it. What if its something important?

And there they are, fresh faced and enthusiastic charity workers here to tell me about the latest good news in Cancer Research. I feel my heart sink. I hate this I really do. Lola comes bounding to the door keen to greet our visitors with her usual excitement and they begin fawning over her. ‘Oh she’s gorgeous’…. ‘What kind of dog is she?’ and thus I become engaged in conversation. I know what they are going to say but I am not assertive enough to just say ‘no thank you’ and close the door, so I let them do their spiel, carefully prepared so as that I might not even guess that they’re going to ask for money, but then, of course, they do.

I feel so sheepish. I wish I had the nerve to politely explain that whilst I am sure that they are good people who mean well (I’m not, but hey) I have a real problem with the fundamental concept of charity which is only exacerbated by the tactics that large not-for-profits use to try and pressure and manipulate people in to donating, but I don’t. I apologise and explain that I really can’t, making excuses, ‘I’m on a low income (which I am)’ and  then apologise some more for good measure. The volunteer at my door then explains that its ok, and that several of my neighbours who are also on low incomes have agreed to just donate a small amount (the cost of a sandwich) each week, which wouldn’t start coming out until next month. I refuse again and eventually they leave.

As I close the door, I am left a little shocked at how attacked I feel. How vulnerable, as a single woman with mental health problems who lives alone I am. How humiliated I am that I couldn’t articulate clearly my reasons for not wanting to donate, and most of all, how guilty I felt at saying no and wasting their time. And that’s just it, they wanted me to feel guilty, they were clear to remind me that all my neighbours had donated (really?), they wanted me to feel pressured to conform, to feel as though I alone, and my hypothetical donation could have made all the difference. I was able to say no (just about), but I’m sat here now wondering about how many people couldn’t. How many vulnerable people sign up on the doorstep just to make them go away? How many more sign up because they are too ashamed to admit that they can’t afford it? When I worked at the bank, I spoke to people every day who were incurring fines (don’t get me started on those) and charges because they didn’t have enough money in their accounts to cover the £2.00 here, and the £3.00 there.

A few years ago I was walking alone through Leeds when a good looking guy in a charity bib shouted at me ‘Hey gorgeous, I couldn’t help but notice your beautiful smile’. I rolled my eyes and kept walking until I was out of sight, tears stinging in my eyes. ‘So now they’re using street-harassment’ I fumed silently through the waves of shame washing over me. There was of course the usual ‘saying no to charity’ shame, but this time it was mixed with how humiliated this man had made me feel. I know how I look, I know what good looking guys think when they see me. I know, because in all my life no stranger has ever approached me to hit on me. I have never been bought a drink at the bar, called beautiful, or flirted with by anyone I didn’t already know and love unless I was the ruse in some ‘hilarious’ prank. And he knew it to. And in that moment when he shouted across the street to me, everyone else there knew it too. He assumed that looking as I do, my self-esteem would be so low that having an attractive man notice me would make me putty in his hands, presumably because it had worked for him before.

I’ve also been the person sat in an office when the email/bucket/sponsorship form comes round who begins to perspire and panic about how they’re going to have to give something which might very well end up being the lunch money, or coming out of next month’s food shop. I know what it is to experience this mild discomfort turning into a full blown panic attack as my anxious mind gets stuck between the fear of saying no, and the fear of not being able to buy a train ticket for work next week.

Its very difficult to be publicly against charity without giving the appearance of being unfeeling or mean spirited which is why I decided to write down how I feel about this matter. As a socialist, I wholeheartedly believe that there should be no need for charities to exist. I am sure that I am at least, if not more, excited about recent developments in immunotherapy than the volunteers on my doorstep this evening. Having lost both of my grandmothers to cancer, and witnessed up close the utter misery that is undergoing chemo and radiotherapy, I wish for nothing more than this treatment to be available on the NHS. And there is the crux of the matter. This treatment should be available on the NHS, and maybe it would be if we didn’t have a government so hell bent on running the health service into the ground and then selling off the decrepit remains to the highest bidder (who invariably plays golf/went to school/drinks cocktails with the cabinet). For me, charity is a band-aid which allows governments to consistently get away with underfunding vital services, and the middle class to pay lower taxes whilst simultaneously patting themselves on the back for giving a tenner once a year to Comic relief.

Cancer treatment, child protection, famine aid, clean water and shelter are not luxuries. They are not to be ‘given’ as gifts or tokens of generosity to those whom society deems deserving. They are fundamental human rights that should be guaranteed for everyone, paid for through taxes by everyone who can afford it (myself, and multi-million dollar corporations included).

I know, I know it’s all very good and well in principle, and some charities do do good work  (which makes me even more frustrated that the good ones often get tarred with the same brush) and my choosing not to donate is not changing anything on the grand scale. People are dying and starving NOW, there isn’t time to debate the theory. And I get it, I do. Perhaps I am a hypocrite, but I do give to local charities when I can, and my activism always involves raising money for local women’s and queer and marginalised groups and always will. But I am aware, that being able to do these things, no matter how small, is the result of the privilege that I possess.

I’m not saying that people who do charity work are evil, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t give if we choose to. But it should be a choice, given freely, without manipulation or social coercion. If you want to run a marathon for sport relief then do it, but think about why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for and most importantly how you’re doing it. None of the people who sent their sponsorship forms round my office were trying to make me, or anyone else, embarrassed or upset. They just didn’t know, because we don’t talk about it. Maybe we have to accept that charities exist and need support but lets try and engage with them on a human level, give our time and money to the good ones, but only if we are able to, look into the work that they do and make our support more meaningful than a direct debit that goes out each month with the TV licence. I hasten to add here that ‘meaningful’ does not have to mean volunteering either. It is too easy to criticise those who donate money but not time to charity from a place of privilege which neglects that not everyone is physically, mentally or socially able to volunteer. ‘Meaningful’ engagement can be researching a charity for yourself, sharing links on social networks, telling your friends about upcoming events. All I am really saying is that we must make sure that in our enthusiasm for trying to help others we don’t step over vulnerable folks in the process.

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