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Giving Stuff Doesn't Help If We Don't Give A Stuff

Charity has become a superficial PR race.

17/06/2016 5:45 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
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We all need to think and act, not just give money.

The front page on my crowd-source campaign says it all: unsuccessful. Behind the everything-is-awesome facade of the crowd-funding phenomenon, the reality is that many causes, like mine, fail to make their target. But still, I say thank you.

That's because, while I didn't gain any money for my cause from my efforts, the whole exercise taught me a lot. And what I learned has helped me to better define what my cause is and how I approach fundraising in future.

Modern-day charity is very, very competitive. Not only does every cause have its many champions -- from laundering for the homeless to climate change -- each and every individual, it seems, is a charity of their own.

This personalisation of the charity impulse has created micro-communities within the 'cause' landscape. Even large charities now try to "individuate" their pitches, and crowd-source campaigning is one of the more powerful engines in this drive.

But, this dynamic has splintered the charity field. And philanthropy is a little like the boarding house porridge: there's only so much to go around. More charities doesn't necessarily mean more solutions. Nor does more billionaires and zillionaires.

We are still struggling with poverty, war, famine, exploitation and myriad versions of inequality and bigotry, the sort of ills that have plagued human kind for centuries. What's going wrong?

The problem is that the solution isn't just about money. Unless charities are really serious about taking a preventative approach, rather that curative one, then the issues are unlikely to be faced.

The early 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw charity as an act of power. Giving money to charity, he argued, is a way that donors can underline their power and, potentially, bolster the very system from which they gain that power.

As such, and despite their charity, donors might be part of the problem.

The donor who gives to protect children from exploitation but then continues to purchase cheap goods that may be produced by child labour is just one manner this might be embodied. Some children may well be saved by charity donations, but the system that exploits them will likely remain.

Without actual engagement with an issue, it is unlikely that charity dollars will solve any real problem on their own.

Crowd sourcing succeeds largely because emotive donors are more likely to respond to single beneficiary causes. They are easier to identify with and less taxing than having to contextualise and do homework to really work out what the problem is.

The appeal is focussed less on the cause and more on individuals within it. The pitch is not to solve the problem, but to make the donor feel good. Techniques of crowd sourcing like rewards and equity only emphasise these mechanisms.

The upshot of this is that charity has become a superficial PR race. Short attention spans beget a world of gimmicks, tricks, marketing ploys and emotional images. A touching homily with an inspirational picture backdrop, a suffering child, a slick video and pair of earthy hands cupping a seedling in a mound of soil.

Celebrities add to the mix, obliging any cause to pass the cool test before it's taken seriously enough to support.

The goal has become quantitative. The target is money. Qualitative techniques -- using emotive trigger points -- are utilised to create a quantitative outcome: more money. It's databases and spreadsheets, numbers and 170-word grabs.

Actual engagement with a given issue or cause is deemed "too difficult" for fund-raising boffins and SEO gurus.

That's why we are not getting anywhere. And that's why I refuse to play the game.

There has been a backlash. So-called 'poverty porn' has been put on notice and will hopefully be pushed out into the far margins of charity marketing.

But, the over-arching culture of charity has a long way to go.

I figure people should know about the issue rather than just be fooled into an emotive buy-in. I don't just want money to help me and others do the work. I want to generate a willingness to learn and to switch on to the cause we are all part of and are supporting. Because we all need to think and act, and maybe change, if we are to make our world work better.

Clearly, I asked too much. And that's why I failed. While I am very sorry for my intended beneficiaries (Rohingya refugees in Malaysia) that I never made the funds I needed, I haven't given up and I'll push on. We'll get there.

One thing is clear though. I won't be pulling any stunts just to get funds out of ordinary people without finding ways to help them engage with the issue more broadly and contextually. That's what charities should be doing.

Sure I failed. But I'm actually happy I did. I know better now what I am really trying to do.

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