What is charity?

Legally speaking, a charity should be all about providing public benefit. Usually this means raising funds to do things that need doing, but cannot be paid for in more commercial ways – medical research, environmental protection, famine relief… we know perfectly well what charity is supposed to look like. I gather there’s a growing scandal in the USA around how little public money donated to charities finds its way to where it is needed. If you’re aware of this and want to add details in the comments, do pile in. I think it is important to publicise this kind of thing and to know how our money is used.

How much money should a charity pay people to work for it? Many charities have employees and could not possibly run with just volunteers. I think, for example, of the nearby Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, which needs experts and a lot of person hours to function. I take no issue with them paying people who do vital work. I don’t think most of us would object to paying people to get the job done. However, if most of the money seems to be paying for something other than getting the job done, I think it’s fair to ask questions.

I think we are entitled to expect charities to uphold the law in all ways. That seems like a fair ask. No charity should exist to benefit the powerful and affluent at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. I also think that charities should be entirely transparent about how they spend the money they are asking people to give them.

So here’s a thing. Over at canalrivertrust.org.uk it says this “Every penny you donate will be spent directly on work to conserve, restore and enhance your canals and rivers – and to educate people about them”. (It’s on the donate page, if you want to check.)

What it doesn’t say, is that this ‘charity’ has an enforcement department. That’s a whole team of people who are paid, not voluntary, and whose job it is to monitor the movement of boats. The enforcement department is paid to write letters (employee time plus postage costs here) that pressure boaters who live on their boats into taking moorings (CRT owns many moorings, there is a financial benefit to them in doing this). The enforcement department routinely threatens people who have no mooring, with homelessness. You can legally have a boat and not have a mooring. This department is a legacy from their time as a government outfit, but I question what a charity is doing even having an enforcement department in the first place.

The website does not say “some of the money you will donate will be used to pay for threatening letters to be sent to boaters, and if we take people to court, we’ll use your money to pay for that, too.” They do take people to court, incidentally.

Do we feel comfortable with the idea of donating to a charity that could use that money to take a person’s home from them? In what way does making a person homeless constitute public benefit? They say it is to protect the canal, but boats that sink are left on the bottom, apparently less dangerous than one that has not PAID THEM to have a mooring. Isn’t that interesting?

If you want to take this up with them directly, @canalrivertrust on twitter, or consider swinging round to this site – http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/charity-should-be-charitable
In the meantime, if you are aware of any other uncharitable charities that need bringing to public awareness, do mention them in the comments. Name and shame.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “What is charity?

  • druidcat

    Cancer Research has been known to ‘fire’ volunteers… for having cancer.

  • Angharad Lois

    That is terrible. Thank you for raising awareness – I would never have known. I got all enthused over the idea of being a voluntary lock-keeper a while back, and it took me a while to realise that this was actually a very insidious way to undermine an entire profession, replacing paid workers with volunteers.

    The issue of how much of the money donated makes its way to where it is needed is a thorny one… For a while, my partner had the (unfortunate) luck of an inheritance just big enough that he could work without earning, allowing him to do this: http://www.aidconvoy.net/?page_id=68
    It took him some time (and a lot of penny-pinching) to reconcile himself to the idea of taking a wage from a charity; not many of them stand up to ethical scrutiny, sadly. Even MSF, which seems to come closest of all to living up to its high standards, maintains smart offices in expensive central city locations.

    • Nimue Brown

      I think everyone has the right to earn a living and many of th things charities raise money for arguably should be funded by other means (medicar esearch for example,) but yeah, money spent on shiny city locations, not wholly explicable…

  • Solstice time | Druid Life

    […] in for years, but have finally got some movement on. You may have seen yesterday’s post about how charity should be charitable. If not, please do swing over and read that one, it’s […]

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