Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Beggars and benefactors

Whenever we received pocket money or gifts of money as presents my sister and I were taught "it is more blessed to give than to receive" and encouraged to put 10% aside for our church collection and another 10% to save to buy presents for people. I didn't much like this at the time, since it meant that it took longer to save up for things I wanted to buy, but I am grateful now for the lessons it taught me about patience and generosity.  I try to instil these values in my own children, less successfully I think.

Giving is big business now.  According to the NCVO, using ONS data, the total UK voluntary sector income in real terms increased from around £30bn in 2001/02 to £40bn in 2007/08 and has remained steady since then despite the economic downturn. These figures include public sector funding which varies a lot but amounts to around a third of the total, on average.  I work for the Welsh Government and it is striking how "working in partnership with the voluntary sector" seems now to be the proposed solution to the funding cuts in services to vulnerable people. As central government allocations to local government continue to plummet and the NHS faces rising costs due to demographic changes and other things, we depend more and more on public and private donations and on people working for nothing to plug the gap.  This relies on all of us giving spare cash to worthy causes, putting bags of pasta in the Foodbank box at the supermarket etc. And it's getting easier and easier to give - a couple of clicks on my phone is all that's needed to send a donation.

One of the difficulties with this "Big Society" model is that it divides people into the beggars and the benefactors.  In an effort to move away from a society where people feel entitled to education, healthcare and welfare payments without taking any responsibility for contributing we are in danger of heading back to a "Victorian" (for want of a better description) world of beggars and benefactors where "beggars can't be choosers", and those of us receiving more than we are able to give to society are expected to be grateful and not complain.  And wealthy benefactors are allowed to bestow their generosity where they want (rather than contributing to the shared public purse) with no questions asked about the sources of their wealth.  We are supposed to look up to them simply because they are rich and famous.

Over the last couple of weeks I was watching with bemusement as my Facebook news feed filled up with videos of my friends being doused in icy water. It was by turns interesting, amusing and a bit boring watching people going along with it as a bit of fun, some of them donating to the cause and others possibly not.  But there were other people complaining too - about the waste of water, the stats which suggested only half of those "taking the challenge" had made a donation, and the gimmicky nature of it all.  There were concerns that it was just silly exhibitionism and demeaning to the dignity of those with motor neurone disease. If the challenge had been to raise funds for our charity to help children with cerebral palsy I'd have had mixed feelings too, but mostly we would have been delighted with the massive windfall and publicity, and the knowledge of how much this extra money would help to fund research, equipment and support. I knew I wouldn't get away without doing it myself, and sure enough eventually someone "nominated me", Owen did an excellent job of drenching me - the uncomfortable process expertly recorded by Immy on our iPad.

Exhibitionism has always had a big role in charitable giving.  For many businesses and wealthy individuals it's the name plaque on the wall, the publicity, the accolade and admiration at the charity dinner etc that motivate giving, along with the tax breaks.  We all have the option of hiding our donation amount on a Just Giving site or making the gift anonymous, but it can be just as important for us to be seen to be giving as actually giving.  We received a few large anonymous donations when we were raising funds for Imogen and they did make me wonder whether I would have been prepared to do the same if the shoe was on the other foot.  Another saying of Jesus instilled in me as a child is: "when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing".  In fact a much higher proportion of Jesus's sayings are about giving to the poor than the proportion of time we spend talking about this in our churches.

If giving is hard, receiving can sometimes be even harder. It was very difficult for our family to place ourselves firmly and very publicly at the receiving end of things.  It marks you out as different, placing you on the other side of a transaction to your friends and acquaintances and sometimes brings embarrassment into relationships.  I am conscious, even two years on, of the importance (quite rightly) of not being wasteful or extravagant.  I've always been determined, independent and hard-working and it has been so difficult for me to say "I can't do this on my own - I need help".  I struggle with this daily - often finding myself refusing offers of help for example in getting Immy's wheelchair up some steps - and then seeing a confused, embarrassed or disappointed face and wondering why on earth I said "it's OK thank you, I'm fine".  Who did that help?!

In reality I'm not all that good at either giving or receiving.  I rarely make a financial gift that makes a painful dent in my finances.  And I'm often a less than gracious accepter of gifts and help.  So there's lots for me to work on!