‘If you focus on the need it’s a bottomless pit’.

So Comic Relief is here again and as usual I have a sense of disquiet. There is just something about the whole thing that makes me feel uncomfortable.

This year I thought I’d pause, reflect and try to get to the bottom of what it is that makes me feel like this.

Searching online one of the first things I came across was this film by Russell Brand. (I can’t make my mind up about him but he did do a lovely Desert Island Discs – which you can catch here.) He makes some great points. I haven’t checked his facts thoroughly (but since he read them off a piece of paper I take it he had) but it is fascinating to think that it’s taken Comic Relief 30 years to make £1bn whilst Barclays – one of their ‘partners’ – makes that much profit every few months.

So while the big corporates hover around Comic Relief getting loads of reflected positive strokes for their brands and increased sales (remember what happened with album sales after Live Aid?) the money is raised by school kids in Bromsgrove using their pocket money to make cakes or hard pressed shoppers in Norwich putting money in a bucket while the Deputy Manager of Sainsbury’s sits in a bath full of beans.

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But my problem isn’t really that so much of the money raised by Comic Relief disproportionately comes from ordinary people…people least well placed to give. The urge to help others, to make a difference, to give of ones scarce resources for the benefit of others….are all admirable things in themselves.

The issue is the commodification of these feelings. Fundraisers like Comic Relief have very little to say about the causes of poverty or inequality. They perpetuate a narrative that says the way to end the sad things they show us is for us to text XYZ to donate £5 or ZYX to donate £10 and then for a small number of heroic charity workers to do what they do.

Every time Comic Relief is back it raises more money and every time the scenes of suffering and hardship are the same.

Recently I heard the CEO of a well known charity say something amazing. Speaking to a room full of leaders from across the private and not for profit sectors he said:

“I hate charity”

I can’t say who it was as he was speaking under the Chatham House rule but the reasons he gave for his statement really struck a chord. He said he is fed up with people coming to his organisation and saying they’ve worked for X years making money and now they want to ‘put something back’. He sees his organisation as a business that trades and generates value along the way.

[The irony of being driven in big shiny Jaguar to give a talk about…inequality and poverty…wasn’t lost on him. (It’s a good job he didn’t see the Model X Tesla that was there earlier).]

Now I don’t intend to get into the whole complex area of politics and economics or how and why we find ourselves in a world where wealth and resources are so unequally distributed between, and within, countries. But it seems clear that charity, however well intentioned, cannot put an end to it. MP David Lammy made some great points in his Guardian piece:

I recently came across Wendy McCaig on Twitter. As soon as you start watching these videos you’ll realise Wendy is from the States, so she may seem a little exuberant for the English amongst you. But please persist as she tells a great story about the journey she and her Church went on in Richmond, Virginia, from doing charity work to try and relieve need, to community connecting to build on strengths.

Comic Relief encourages us to raise money to give to charities who will then make that need go away. It casts the people we see on our screens as passive, needy; and us as powerless and disconnected.

Four Thought

In his Four Thought piece a while back, David Russell, gives an insiders view on charity work and the relentless pressure to go for outcomes, quick easy solutions that will satisfy donors and grant givers. It’s an uncomfortable listen but one I’d recommend. The podcast is here.

So is there nothing to be done? No alternative to relentless feelgood of #RND2017?

Well we could do a lot worse than getting out and meeting our neighbours. Finding out about what they are into, what they like doing, who they know. Joining the local community Facebook page, to see what’s going on. Have a read of the post cards in the local newsagent. Read the Church notice board. Say hello to other dog walkers. Have a chat with another runner. Talk to the person at the bus stop. Get to know your neighbourhood. Find out what’s going on. Join in. Share your time, your gifts and talents…..your electric drill or your step ladder. Start to make connections and help build on what’s good about the place where you live. Before you know it you’ll be the one who can invite others to get involved. Bring people in from the edge and help them be part of their community. Building relationships that cut across gender, age, religion and class.


Tonight I didn’t watch TV and text £5 after seeing Ed Sheeran in Liberia or Jonathan Ross in Liverpool surrounded by grateful, smiling children. I was in our community centre, watching a shaky recording of Puss in Boots made on an iPhone and sharing a meal with the friends and neighbours who made it happen back in January. And after tonight our community will be just a little bit stronger; a little bit more resilient and a little more ready to weather whatever life has to throw at it.




5 responses to “‘If you focus on the need it’s a bottomless pit’.

  1. I share your unease John – whenever I see some company presenting a charity with a big cheque I tend to think that that’ll be pretty cost effective advertising for them. Maybe a bit unfair to the genuine philanthrapists in businesses but they tend to be the ones that won’t expect a photo opportunity with the big cheque presentation.

    It galls me too that some of the celebrities appearing on programmes like Comic Relief are less than sincere – worth reminding people that Gary Barlow. for example, tries to evade paying his tax (as well as being as having about as much charisma as a dead slug!

    Interesting the quote you cite from the Charity CEO – having worked in both the voluntary and public sector, and in a partnership role in the latter, my experience tells me that the sector is far from immune from hypocritical charlatans at the head as any other. The Batmangela (sp.) woman comes to mind.


    • Thanks Robin. I just re-listened to the David Russell podcast. He talks about his shock when working for a big international aid charity that he’d be driven around in a massive air-conditioned Hummer and eat fabulous meals in a luxurious restaurant while ostensibly helping the hungry and sick. Couldn’t help but have his words in mind as I caught a little of David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis driving through east Africa for Comic Relief …in a huge white car (it may have been a Hummer)…on Thursday.


  2. Thanks for this John. It’s very interesting – this year I didn’t give either, and for much the same reason. My feeling is that those who can least afford it do give, and there’s a real drive to manipulate that giving. I do think that charities do do good work: but then I am bound to say that, but when, years ago, I did my fundraising diploma it came as no surprise to me that most of those who were doing the qualification with me had begun their working lives in marketing. Raising money for charity is about the sell: selling an idea, a solution, a feel-good or whatever – and perhaps that’s what makes us so uneasy. We are part of a chain.


    • Ha! I’m sure you weren’t Wendy. We had Angela Blanchard at our Bash a year or so back so folks are getting used to that Texas twang. Great videos. You have a brilliant way of conveying what is quite a hard idea for people to get.


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