Friday, 24 April 2009

Retiree without a Cause

One of several memorable experiences from my first weeks living in England is of going to a movie around Veterans Day, in November. Over here people tend to call it ‘Poppy Day’ as red paper flowers are worn in support of veterans. They are sold everywhere for £1 and one cannot escape ones duty.

It was at the Cinema Odeon in Newcastle, now a derelict building awaiting decisions and money from the Council. Instead of beginning with the usual trailers from 68 other films they wanted you to go see, we were given black and white news reels from World War II. I thought these were vaguely interesting and a nice change, but then the lights came back on and people carrying buckets walked up each aisle, approaching each movie go-er, expecting contributions. The way that bucket was thrust under my nose I got the clear message that unless I coughed up I wouldn’t be seeing the film anytime soon, hefty price though I’d just paid for it. I think that has coloured my view of charity collections ever since.

Over the next few months I was much aware of the many doorways in Newcastle inhabited by collectors for various charities. Even in smaller towns one is apt to encounter at least one or two in their shopping expeditions. As I understand it, the council tends to own most of the commercial property in a city or town centre and if a shop is vacant and looks to not be leased by a profit making tenant, it may be let to a charity to sell goods. Too many charity shops in an area is considered back news by the council; my legs think it is good news, particularly if it occurs near an affluent neighbourhood.

Over the years I saw a great deal of charity work and collections at my work place, something that would never have been permitted in the State offices I worked at in the US. I came to appreciate why it was good not to allow it as one felt a certain amount of pressure from work colleagues to empty ones pockets at the office; I wondered sometimes if I could actually afford to go to work!

Observing the many collectors, the numerous and crowded shops, the vast amount of goods on display and in back rooms awaiting display, the copious plastic printed bags put through my letter box asking for clothing, etc., it wasn’t hard to reach the conclusion that charity is big business here in Britain. When in a sour mood I have had the thought that Britain is a nation of beggars, but I realize that’s not fair. It's is more likely that their methods are more obvious in some respects than in the US.

The latest trend seems to be for people to approach you in the street -- or to knock on your door -- and ask not for cash, but for you to fill in a form that pledges a few pounds a month to go to the charity from your bank account, called a direct debit. People use direct debits all the time to make bill paying more convenient, and charities have apparently cottoned on to the fact that this is a way of paying that people will frequently forget they ever signed up for...and so it may continue.

A friend of ours does a lot of volunteer work for a hospice that cares for terminal cancer patients after they cared for his mother. His wife, a cancer survivor, worked first as a cleaner and now with training as a carer for the same charity. I’m in no doubt that they do good work. In checking, I also found that they spend 30% of their income to get more income. That seems rather high to me.

No doubt you’ll have read Jane Eyre and remember the horrible home in which she grew up, where children died of malnutrition and TB, whilst the head master’s family wore furs and jewels. Given the attitudes amongst many in the upper echelons of my workplaces here in Britain, the sense of entitlement and unaccountability, I no longer find that story at all far fetched. Rather like the relationships between board members and bankers, the regulatory system can sometimes tiptoe through apologetically (I’ll not look at yours, if you don’t look at mine…). I don’t know that to be the case with Britain’s charity regulation, but you might have guessed by now that I tend towards skepticism.

The head quarters of a large Christian outreach charity was for a while located near my Dad’s house. He once remarked there were altogether too many Mercedes and Jaguars outside for his liking and I have adopted his view that one should contribute to charity only after doing some research.

Some of my retired friends are eyeball deep in working for their chosen charity and I envy them their passion. I think sometimes that it might be good to do some volunteer work on behalf of a charity, but given all of the above, I would probably need to do some investigation first! But where to start?

I've done a bit of digging over the last few months since drafting this post and found the following info: In terms of percent of gross domestic product, charitable contributions make up

Australia 0.49%
Canada 0.77%
UK 0.88%
US 2.17%

I think the fact that, in the US, charitable contributions are tax deductable, giving a return benefit -- albeit a small one -- is the key to their higher contributions.

In the US, United Way is the biggest charity, with an income in 2004 of $3.84 billion; the top salary they pay is $63o,000 and they spend 9% on fundraising, 5% on admin and 86% on services.

In the UK, one of the biggest is British Red Cross, with and income of £2.42 million (a significant amount of this is public money, ie from the government). I had to do some digging, but found that the top salary in 2007 was between £160 and £170,000 (interesting that they have over 30,000 volunteers but only 2600 staff - and those 2600 got a 4.5% pay rise in 2007). By my calculations they spend 78% on services and19% on income generation (and they keep a bit).

I attempted to look up similar info for Australia and found that the Catholic Church was worth an estimated $100 billion and that comparisons in Australia of charitable organisations would have possibly to include religious organisations; way too complicated! It did mention that the Australian Red Cross as one of the larger charities. They last reported an income of $5.94 million (AU) dollars. Their financial statement is nicely detailed -- more details than I care to wade through to come up with a comparison, much as I love playing with data.

I've put some of the more interesting websites down below, on the very off chance that you are absorbed by this subject!

Are you involved in any particular charities?


Anonymous said...

You my be too young to remember the the US sold red poppies for Veterans Day back when I was a kid in Duluth.

Oklahomas are very good about giving when there is a need. There aren't may weeks that go by that there is a story on the news with an after note that if you want to donate to the family that has the problem you can at a certain bank.

I personally like the United Fund that includes a number of charities and the fact that you can give through work with payroll taking it out of your check for whatever period of time you specify. That is a lot better than giving your bank information to the charities to access.

We hear so much about someone getting bank information and draining the account. So I am not very trusting either.

Shelley said...

I liked the United Way as well, being able to tick a box/boxes next to the charity one was interested to giving to. And remember the old joke "I gave at the office"; except that it was true...

Rick Stone said...

I never liked the United Way. They used too much of the money for "Administrative" purposes, including the salary of the head of it. The military had their own version called the Combined Federal Campaign. The different commands I was at were more concerned at getting 100% participation than they were at how the money was being used. When I refused to donate one year one of the Chief's donated $10 in my name so the command would have 100% and make the Captain look good.