There was a time when you couldn’t walk down your local high street and not be set upon by a succession of ‘charity muggers’ — those relentlessly cheery and chatty young men and women who want your money for worthy causes like Cancer Research UK, Greenpeace, Oxfam or Age UK. These days the high streets are relatively free from their presence and their sales pitch is more restrained. But there’s a new breed of brazen ‘charity muggers’ who want your money — and they’re called your friends.
I used to get emails from friends asking me to dinner or for drinks; now, on a daily basis I get emails from friends asking me for money — money for their favourite charity. They tell me they’re running/walking/singing/swimming/growing a moustache/shaving their heads/ going sober for a month to raise money for some worthy cause, and would I like to sponsor them?
And then there’s another type of worthy cause that friends would like me to make a donation to: themselves. That is, their latest creative project that is currently being crowdfunded and in need of my support. In the past four months I’ve been asked to pledge money to a friend’s novel, a friend’s musical, a friend’s documentary and a book of photographs by a friend. I’ve even been asked to make a donation to someone making a documentary who isn’t a friend, but a friend of a friend. At this rate, I’m going to have to earn more money or lose more friends.
In some ways, the new charity muggers are worse than the old high-street variety. The latter were, with their synthetic smiles and manufactured mateyness, just another irritation of modern urban life. A quick ‘no thanks’ or a silent shake of the head would usually see the back of them.
But you can’t be so quick and dismissive with a friend’s pitch for a donation. You have to stop what you’re doing and take time out to read their often elaborate email, detailing their forthcoming hike up Mount Wazoo (or whatever it’s called) or a three-day marathon run in Ethiopia and how they first got involved with the cause in question and why it’s such a good cause and would I like to make a donation?
The honest answer is: ‘No! Piss off and leave me alone.’ But of course I don’t say that. The chatty light tone of their email pitch is designed to make you feel that you’re under no pressure to make a donation. But you know, and they know, that you’re expected to cough up. After all, don’t friends help each other out? And they may claim that ‘whatever you can spare would be greatly appreciated’ but try sending just two pounds and see how that goes down. I once did, and got sarcastically dubbed the ‘new Bill Gates’ for my Scrooge-like efforts.
Your finger may hover over the delete button, but for the sake of friendship you don’t press it. You’re too anxious as to how that will make you look to them and mutual friends who, unlike you, will be making a big donation. (Named contributors are usually thanked in emails after the event.) Consequently, refusal to give makes you a shit twice over: first, to the friend you have failed to support, and secondly to the victims of cancer, earthquakes, dementia or whomever your friend wants to help but by implication you don’t.
For me, this becomes particularly acute when the charity in question has to do with political concerns close to my heart such as human rights. In which case my guilt goes into overdrive and I tell myself that while I sit on my fat liberal arse at home reading the Guardian and raging against the inequities of our world, X is out there suffering and doing something for the people you claim to care about! I assuage my guilt by telling myself that charity should not be a spectator sport. I’m old school, I say, the kind who quietly writes out a cheque or makes an online contribution without drawing attention to themselves. Aren’t those who take on these great physical and mental challenges for charity engaging in virtue-signalling of the most visible kind? Look at me! I’m going to suffer for starving kids or people with cancer.
And have you noticed that there’s an endurance oneupmanship going on? The more you suffer for a good cause, the higher your moral status. You can’t just bake a couple of brownies for the local church charity fête anymore; no, these days you have to do the Three Peaks Challenge and climb Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, one after another, to impress your friends.
Worst of all are the emails from friends who are part of the growing crowdfunding movement and want a donation for some artistic work of their own. When it comes to literature, crowdfunding is a great idea, in theory. It’s actually vanity publishing turned on its head: instead of you having to pay to get your novel published, you get your friends to pay to get your novel published. Brilliant.
Don’t get me wrong: there are great writers who need to be supported but can’t get published (I’m one of them). A couple of years ago I bunged my friend Emily Hill a fiver to get her book of short stories, Bad Romance, published, and I’m glad I did. But the vast majority of books/films/musicals by our friends are so bad they shouldn’t be funded. Only we can’t say that, at least if we want to stay friends.
In the past we were never put in this awkward position. When faced with a friend’s latest unreadable novel we could just lie and say it was brilliant. Back then, it was up to professional editors, publishers, film companies and record labels to crush the creative aspirations of our friends. All we had to do was offer sympathy, not a financial contribution.
To give or not to give — that is the question we all face. I sometimes make a contribution and then feel I’ve been conned, or I don’t make a contribution and I feel like a crap friend. Either way I wish charity didn’t begin at home: my home.
Now listen to Lara Prendergast talk to Cosmo Landesman and James Delingpole about online fundraising and friends who beg for money (30:35).