Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Charitable giving and common humanity

I posted an article earlier today about an encounter I had this afternoon with a seller of 'The Big Issue' magazine; this resulted in a comment from a regular local visitor to my blog. I quote below the text of a comment I posted there in response to his comment because I think this is a topic (charitable giving) that deserves to be amplified upon:

"I know what you mean, but with respect you remind me a little of my Biology master at school a LONG time ago in the Isle of Man who used to 'rail' against Oxfam because he believed they spent too high a proportion of the donations they were given on admin rather than on those they were supposed to be helping. Whilst I was somewhat suspicious of one person who was selling 'The Big Issue' in Nairn almost as a full-time job for a lengthy period (the person I referred to in my article) it does not mean I have become suspicious of everyone who sells that magazine as a way of self-help.

Of course I have no interest whatsoever either, or not much at any rate, in what is in the magazine, but I recognise it as a valid way for people to try and help themselves without resorting to simple begging and I recognise too its worthy aim of trying to give sellers a little self-respect. Similarly, I have heard stories before about people who are supposedly 'exploiting' people by begging, but then going off to their nice cars and nice homes/apartments - no doubt some such stories are true, although I tend to believe most are apochryphal and (I'm sorry to say, somewhat judgmentally I suppose) often used as excuses by people who simply don't wish to help their fellows who are in difficulty, even if they have the means to do so.

Whilst accepting that I may at times be naive and give to people who don't deserve/merit it, I would rather occasionally be taken for a gullible fool than always deny those who may deserve a little help when they need it. I may sometimes be rather more cynical than is healthy, but I like to think I have not lost all sense of humanity and empathy for others who may have a genuine need; standing outside Somerfield for hours on end in the warmer summer weather is a very different proposition from doing so at this time of year when like the person I saw today who was obviously frozen stiff - I can think of a lot more comfortable ways of spending such a lengthy period, if I was as desperate as it seemed to me the person I met today was.

Incidentally, and an aspect I did not mention in my article, before I went into the shop I noticed that everyone was studiously avoiding acknowledging speaking to this fellow. When I came out of the shop I had already decided to buy an issue of the magazine from him and went straight up to him and proferred my money before he had to ask, then he tried to engage me in a little conversation; I noticed afterwards, whilst I was going to my car, that 3 or 4 other people had then given him money and taken his magazines; frankly I think my act of 'breaking the ice' by speaking to him had given a number of others the courage/excuse to do likewise, so I am doubly-glad to have done what I did today by giving him the common courtesy of acknowledging his existence. If he is there tomorrow or next week when I go for my newspaper I fully intend to engage him in conversation again, even if I don't buy a duplicate of the magazine I got today, simply to make him feel that he is not invisible and is not a 'pariah' - it is far too easy for middle class people like me to walk by on the other side of the road and I have no intention of succumbing to that easy way out. Life is going to be tough for a lot of people over the next few years; I don't want to be one of the people who ignores at a very practical level what is happening to people less fortunate than I am lucky enough to be."

I know that a lot of people in this country ARE generous, but there are also many who are not. The attitude toward charitable giving in the US seems to me a lot more open and less hide-bound by cynicism - and is helped by a very generous tax regime which encourages people to give to those in need in lieu of taxes. I give to a number of charities on a regular basis under 'direct debit' and 'standing order' arrangements and this too gives me the possiblity of increasing the benefit to such charities by allowing them to claim an additional amount from the Inland Revenue equivalent to the tax I will already have paid on the amounts I have given to the charities; I encourage anyone who makes regular charitable donations to increase the value of their contributions by allowing the beneficiaries to benefit from similar tax clawbacks.

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