I admit it, I’m guilty of wasting charitable funds

25 February 2010

I need to confess to a misallocation of charitable funds, as well as a flouting of my own personal rules. In short, I gave some money to an animal charity.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about why I don’t give to animal charities. This argued, in essence, that giving money to (say) donkey sanctuaries rather than domestic violence charities represented a misallocation of charitable funds, and that this was wrong. On holiday in Cyprus last week, my five year-old daughter Alice asked to go to the local donkey sanctuary. I couldn’t resist and she ended up having a fine time walking and grooming Popeye and Lorraine, (Alice and Popeye are pictured), two aged and well looked after donkeys. She then asked to adopt Lorraine, which we duly did, handed over more money by way of donation and bought several gifts.

This broke all my rules about charities. The only compensation is that it makes me feel like a better dad. But it was charitable giving to make me feel good, not charitable giving for public benefit.

To make matters worse for me, the donkey sanctuary in Cyprus is funded by The Donkey Sanctuary here in the UK, the very charity NPC used for the comparison with domestic violence charities. The most recent published figures show The Donkey Sanctuary had an annual expenditure of £19.6 million in the year to September 2008. Reserves were £37.1 million. That is, to put it mildly, rather a lot. After my visit, that reserves figure is now a tiny bit higher.

After my visit to the donkey sanctuary, I felt good as a parent, but bad as a donor. Alice feels marvellous and is inseparable from her picture of Lorraine, but that is not a sensible charitable objective.

A further irony was provided when I read about the local town in the guide book where I first heard about the donkey sanctuary. According to the guide book, some women working in topless bars in Limassol are there under duress. The lack of funding for charities that tackle violence against women was the original reason NPC made the comparison with The Donkey Sanctuary.

My actions made me think more about just how much accountability we can be expected to hold as donors. Are we to blame for our own decisions, or does blame lie with others for not providing good enough information to discriminate between charities? Testing whether charities provide ‘public benefit’, as required by the Charity Commission, is a weak reed at best for making decisions. At worst, it implies all charities are the same. It suggests that a well-funded donkey sanctuary with ample reserves is as deserving as a cash-strapped rape crisis centre (say). That seems a daft state of affairs. As a result, I feel that donors can only be held partly responsible for our poor choices. The regulatory system must shoulder some of the blame.

I haven’t changed my view that imbalances in charitable funding between animal welfare charities and those addressing issues like domestic violence are acute, indefensible and wrong. I cannot think of any more nuanced or ambiguous ways to describe them.

To contribute to the imbalances by my actions makes me complicit. As a society, we are either ignorant about the sum effect of our individual charitable gifts, or simply indifferent and inhumane. I hope it is the former. If so, we should constantly highlight the issue and take whatever steps we can to address it.