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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.)

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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. 

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“They don’t know how smart they are. You can tell them.”

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

Who encouraged them to keep writing? (Photo: Unclaimed exhibition, Barbican 2019)

Much of my work involves moulding and tweaking other people’s writing into shape. But with R and C, I never fix spelling mistakes or question confusing sentence structures. I never wince when they go off topic, never strike through nonsensical ideas.

R and C are writers – nine and ten-year-old ones – who I’ve been working with at the Ministry of Stories, an east London charity. It’s quite a contrast to my day job, which generally doesn’t involve learning about a monster’s detachable limbs or the newly-discovered land of Japina. Nor does my day job often allow the luxury of focusing entirely on one person and one task. 

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Speaking up

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

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The first speaker’s voice barely carries above the hum of the crowd. Even with a microphone, it takes a while for the 200 or so people gathered to notice she’s addressing them. 

When she’s done, others climb onto the fountain steps alone or in pairs, reading aloud from notes on their phones. Not understanding the words, I watch the body language: a few hold themselves confidently, most less so. One, clutching a diamanté-embellished phone, tries hard to control a visibly shaking hand. Continue reading “Speaking up”

Talking it out

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The guys have their say

Working with London schools and colleges is one way to appreciate this city’s diversity.

While preparing Exposure’s latest podcast on gender and feminism, participants talked about their family lives, and inevitably got onto discussing how culture and upbringing affects your views of a woman’s role in the world.

It made for an interesting debate: we had one young person who’d grown up in Iraq and Sweden, another raised in Zambia by his grandmother, two with an Asian parent, one Jamaica-born Christian, one daughter of a Rastafarian, another whose dad was Algerian. Continue reading “Talking it out”

Pyjamas optional: microvolunteering

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Wanna work in a warehouse? Check out Fareshare (Photo: Rachel Stanley)

Yesterday, perhaps a little lost among the egg-based puns and the stockpiling of sweet things, was Microvolunteering Day. The occasion itself is fairly new (first celebrated in 2014), but the concept of citizens helping out with bite-sized, commitment-free tasks has been around for some time. Trying to flog Oxfam chocolates to commuters at a Brussels train station back in 2009 is still one of my few experiences of cold-selling (I’ve forgotten how many packs I managed to shift, though I do still remember how to say ‘have a nice evening’ in Flemish). And people have been baking for cake sales or rattling collection tins for decades.

Nowadays, though, new technology and new networks have made helping out more accessible, and more varied, than ever.

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