Friday, 7 June 2013

Too many charities

As I left the supermarket the other day I had to run the gauntlet of someone collecting for an obscure charity. I pointedly looked the other way and hurried past. This sounds heartless, but I genuinely believe that we have too many little charities, which result in dilution of the results that the money provided could bring.

Don't get me wrong - I am not talking about all small charities. I used to be a trustee of a local charity called the Zaslowya Project (ZP), and I am still a supporter. This was one of a good number of charities, usually with 'Chernobyl' in their name, that were set up in response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, usually targeting children in neighbouring Belarus, which bore the brunt of the fallout.

Like most of these charities, ZP was set up to bring children to the UK on extend stays - usually about a  month - because it has been put about that by doing so, the level of radiation in the children's bodies dropped significantly and this extended their predicted lifespan by a considerable amount. It has turned out that the whole Chernobyl/radiation thing is something of a red herring. There was never any scientific basis for the original claim, the impact of the radiation seems significantly less than first thought, and even if it were true, taking the children out of the country for a few weeks could only ever have a minor, short term effect.

What ZP does now is concentrate on supporting the children back home - because there is a lot of poverty which, combined with rampant alcoholism amongst adults, results in some dire home lives. The charity does still bring children over on a small scale, but this is primarily to make bonds with donors - the real work goes on back in Belarus.

I have no problem with ZP, or a charity supporting, say, a local hospice. They do great work. No, the ones I have problems with, like the one in the supermarket foyer, are those that nibble away at a bigger charity's important work. They usually combine children with a disease - leukaemia is a common one, tugging at the heartstrings. And I absolutely understand why people feel the need to do this. However I would suggest that the most important thing with diseases is to get them cured, and it would be much better if the money given to these small charities was focussed instead with the big boys like Cancer Research. Yes, care is also important - and if you want to, go with something like Macmillan. But cure and prevention is by far the top priority. I'm afraid these little, well-meaning me-too outfits must divert funds from where they can do most good.

You may wonder if the same should also apply to something like ZP - as I mentioned this is one of many 'Chernobyl' charities. There are several others in Swindon alone. However, ZP concentrates on a single Belarusian town (as many of these charities do), confusingly called Zaslavl rather than Zaslowya (don't ask) - and as I've already indicated, it seems to be one of the few that really understands the need on the ground, rather than reprising the 'holiday from radiation' story.

The news suggests people are giving to charity less at the moment. The last thing I want to do is encourage that. But I do think we ought to be a bit more discriminating - find out a bit more about a charity before we donate. And that means, unless you know the charity already, ignoring those heart-rending pleas at the supermarket entrance.

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