Royal recognition

How can we help: Why we give, and how we might do it better

Remembering the late monarch with a selfie

“Well, they do a lot for charity…”

It’s a common response when you ask people what purpose the British royal family still serves. For some, good causes are the monarchy’s primary purpose: according to recent research from Charities Aid Foundation, a third of Brits believe that the royals’ most important role is supporting charities. (It’s not clear what the remaining two thirds feel is most important.) And a quarter think they first heard about a campaign or cause thanks to royal support.

But do they really do a lot for charity?

Analysis in 2020 by Giving Evidence of the apparently rather opaque world of royal patronages found no evidence that these increase a charity’s revenue (in some cases, they may even cost them money), nor that royalty increases generosity more broadly.

Continue reading “Royal recognition”

Motivations matter

How can we help: Why we give, and how we might do it better

People clearly like to help other people. Last year a friend posted on LinkedIn that she was looking for a mentor; she expected one or two responses – but got an astonishing 25 offers. You see it the other way round, too: mid-career professionals offering time to answer questions or advise younger people on breaking into their industry. 

Why help a stranger? Some remember their own early-career struggles. Some want to help open up a field that lacks diversity. Some, no doubt, do it because they benefit too: they learn something new, they connect with someone of a different background or generation, they boost their own profile. (All of these reasons influenced my decision to mentor with CharityWorks.) The mentor that my friend ultimately chose said that he wanted to continue meeting up partly because her extensive professional network might one day be useful to him. Does that take away from his offer? I don’t think so. Altruism + a selfish motivation might just be the combination that makes something stick.

Continue reading “Motivations matter”

Pasting, parks, and a pioneer of solo travel

Three things I learned or loved this month

Experimental

I loved making collages during a short course at CityLit: the simple-yet-not-simple task of putting disparate pieces together to make something else.

When I sit down to write I have an idea of what will happen, or at least what I want to happen. Collage starts with a blank page too, but – because it is new to me and maybe also because it’s without pressure – feels impossibly open-ended. 

I liked the surprise of the decollage technique – pasting layers then removing elements to create something entirely new. It is unpredictable: some people in the class said they didn’t enjoy the lack of control. 

I liked the tutor’s suggestion to have multiple pieces on the go at once, to shift without thinking from one to the next and back again, to see things afresh, to start noticing themes or connections that tie them together. Above all, he said, it stops you being too precious, it frees you. 

Continue reading “Pasting, parks, and a pioneer of solo travel”

Secular stuff, a census for a century, and simple advice

Three things I learned or loved this month

Artful possessions (credit: Luca Laurence)

Twenty years ago a British artist gathered up 7,227 things he owned and spent two weeks methodically breaking them into pieces. In the heart of consumerist London – in a closed-down C&A store on Oxford Street – his paintings, hi-fi, clothes, love letters, cat food, passport, car and more became bits of metal, glass, ceramic, textiles. The pieces were sent to landfill until his only remaining possession was the boilersuit he was wearing.

The artist, Michael Landy, interviewed last year in the Financial Times, described it as “reversing the idea of production into a disassembly line”. In the act of destruction he was also creating something, of course. His two-week performance attracted some 50,000 visitors to the store, and led to works of photography and exhibitions.

Whatever you think about performance art – or about destroying things for art’s sake, in an age of environmental crisis – the work says something about our complicated attachment to material possessions. As Landy told the FT: “At the time I spoke about how I was witnessing my own death and also moments of elation and it being the happiest two weeks of my life.” 

Continue reading “Secular stuff, a census for a century, and simple advice”

Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays

Three things I learned or loved this month

Saturday stroll among the colours of Cartagena

Everything feels different or disjointed: the air oppressively warm; my knowledge of Spanish buried too many years ago to find the words I need; and it should be afternoon, but I’m the first to order breakfast. Eggs with tomatoes and onion, fruit, black coffee to shake off a six-hour time difference. 

Last week an overnight flight took me to Cartagena de Indias, a city of around 1 million on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where men push carts piled high with mangoes through busy streets, where horse-drawn carts join traffic jams, where friends pose for selfies amid flags or pink umbrellas or street art. A dark history – a one-time slave trade hub, and one of three seats of the Catholic Inquisition in the Americas — but the city has since become a UNESCO heritage site, and tourists come nowadays for the colour, the nightlife, the nearby islands, the easy stroll along thick fortress walls.

Continue reading “Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays”

Despair as a teddy bear

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Bad things seem to pile up: the slow grind of dishonest politics, the sharp horror of war, the unfathomable end of life on earth barely registering on our front pages. You want to make the world a little bit better, but amid all of this, is there any point?

Much has been written already about the risk of burnout among activists, charity workers and healthcare workers. Many have repeated the advice to put on your own oxygen mask first, to practise ‘self-care’ (a term that I find off-putting for some reason, even if I agree with the concept).

But aside from looking after yourself (time off, getting into nature – whatever works), I wonder if it’s most important to find a kind of acceptance, to see despair as the inevitable other side of the coin. 

Continue reading “Despair as a teddy bear”

Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds

Three things I learned or loved this month

Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 book Three Women is widely described as a “bestselling phenomenon”. Columnist Caitlin Moran is quoted saying she would “probably re-read it every year of my life”. Now that I’ve read it, her praise doesn’t seem too far-fetched. 

As much as I was swept up in the real lives that Taddeo portrays – lives of complicated desire, sadness, sexuality, rejection, power, loyalty – I am fascinated by her process as a writer. She spent eight years on research (during which time she also had a baby). Twice, she moved to the town where the women lived to spend time with them; her husband moved with her. She was present at some of the events described in the book; she would meet one of the women immediately after her encounters with a secret lover to hear her recount the experience. Taddeo describes her role, in an interview on the Happy Place podcast, as a sort of “non-judgmental ghost”, present as lives unfolded. Each of the three women finds her decisions judged harshly by those around them; in giving them the full range to tell their stories, the author aims to challenge the quickfire dismissal most of us unleash on people we barely know. “I wanted people to feel unalone,” Taddeo says.

Continue reading “Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds”

Sticking around

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Planning ahead

A former colleague told me recently that he’s started mentoring a kid. It’s not just the occasional phone call or a few trips to the cinema, though: he has signed up to a programme that commits you to meeting up with the same child on three weekends out of four, for a minimum of two years.

How many of us stick at anything, consistently, for a full two years? It’s so easy to set good intentions, then find that other stuff – work exhaustion, family demands, travel plans, life admin – gets in the way. I’m hugely impressed by the volunteers who sign up for two years, but also by charities that aren’t afraid to require it of their volunteers, because they know that for vulnerable kids, consistency matters. 

A day after that conversation with my former colleague, I got a handwritten thank-you letter, out of the blue, from the kids’ charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off for some years. It was completely unexpected, and also unnecessary – like many other volunteers, I do it because I enjoy being there, because I love what the charity does, and because I’ve grown to feel proud to be part of a lovely little community. (Other volunteers include primary school teachers who give up their Saturday mornings to spend more time with excitable children; another, a writer, recently turned up directly off an overnight flight from the USA – she could easily have skipped that session, but said volunteering was the highlight of her week.)

Continue reading “Sticking around”

Storytelling, solidarity, and smiling strangers

Three things I learned or loved this month

Small dog, big smiles

The hero’s journey is trotted out regularly in discussions on storytelling (and, therefore, also on advertising, campaigning, fundraising, and so on). The protagonist goes on a journey to fulfil a desire or answer a call to action; overcomes the enemy; returns home a changed person. Even if we don’t know the theory, we’re all aware of the formula somewhere deep in our bones. 

Into the Woods: How stories work and why we tell them, by former BBC/Channel 4 producer John Yorke, picks this formula apart, exploring each element and providing a few more clues to watch out for in any narrative. The three-act or five-act structure; the inciting incident, midpoint, crisis and climax; the central character who must face his or her opposite.

Some of it is almost gloomily formulaic: in a Bond or Hitchcock film, he writes, the crisis is nearly always a high-octane, 25-minute sequence at the end, set in a unique location, and almost always on territory that’s alien to our hero.

Continue reading “Storytelling, solidarity, and smiling strangers”

Everyone’s a philanthropist… once we get around to it

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

“Instantaneous generosity”: it could be good for you

A family friend told me recently that he and his wife, both writers, wanted to get into philanthropy. It’s not something I often hear, outside my professional bubble. Giving makes you feel good, so why don’t more people do it regularly? 

Partly, I think, because there’s an assumption that philanthropy is only for the very wealthy.

Donations from the likes of Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos get heaps of attention. The scrutiny is important. But it also means that the central characters in most philanthropy stories are business moguls, sports champions and Hollywood stars – no wonder the field can feel as distant a prospect as owning a superyacht. 

Continue reading “Everyone’s a philanthropist… once we get around to it”