BUT did Glasgow 2014’s link-up with Unicef let governments off the hook, asks Dani Garavelli
IT WAS a poignant moment in an otherwise raucous celebration. The colour, flag-waving and noise which peaked when the Scottish team entered Celtic Park gradually subsided. Earlier, Unicef’s UK ambassador Ewan McGregor had told those watching the Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony they would be asked to support disadvantaged children by giving £5.
Other celebrities, including Sir Alex Ferguson, cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar and actress Keeley Hawes, had reinforced his message in clips highlighting the charity’s work in all six regions of the Commonwealth. Now the time had come. The lights of thousands of mobiles shone like fire flies in the night sky as spectators texted their donations and held their phones aloft.
The pioneering partnership between Unicef and Glasgow 2014 was inspired and a coup for both the charity and the city. It gave Unicef a chance to showcase its work and raise £3.5 million in a matter of minutes. That’s before donations made outside the UK are taken into account.
As for Glasgow, it has a long tradition of philanthropy. Using the event to tackle global deprivation allowed the city to revel in its image as a crusader against social inequality and the event organisers to counter accusations that the four-yearly sporting jamboree is little more than an ego trip.
At the ceremony and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people already buoyed up by the atmosphere responded enthusiastically. The purple glow in which the stadium was bathed in seemed to reflect the inner glow generated by the act of giving.
Yet not everyone bought into this act of mass-altruism. Simmering under the surface of positivity was a sense of unease. While few resented giving personally, misgivings were expressed about the merits of this type of fundraising. Was it really appropriate – some said – to ask ordinary people to help the children of some of the world’s most unequal societies in the presence of wealthy heads of state who were in a better position to improve their lot?
The fact the Queen had been driven into the stadium – situated in Glasgow’s deprived East End – in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce seemed to highlight the gulf between rich and poor and the absurdity of placing the responsibility for tackling economic inequality on regular citizens as opposed to governments.
Although he did not mention the Unicef appeal, the comedian Limmy was among those who drew attention to the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme hardship as the ceremony unfolded. His comment, “She wanted money taken from the poor to heat her palace. And they sing God Save The Queen. In the most deprived area of the UK,” may not have summed up the mood of the country as a whole, but it was retweeted 1,700 times.
At the start of the ceremony, McGregor said: “Right now thousands of world-class athletes are here in Glasgow. And over the next 11 days they’ll be doing their best to come first. But tonight, they’re asking all of us watching to take a moment to think about the children in our Commonwealth who usually come last. Last to get healthcare. Last to get an education. Last to just get a fair chance in life.”
However laudable, it left some asking: If this is true, shouldn’t we be shaming their governments into taking action rather than compensating for their policy failures?
Though most people accept philanthropy as a virtue if not a moral duty, debate over the pros and cons of different types of charitable giving has grown over the last decade as the way in which donations are sought and made has changed. Where once it was common practice for people to tithe their income and the poor depended on the patronage of the rich to survive, we now expect the state to provide a safety net for those who cannot fend for themselves.
Despite this, we are bombarded with fundraising ventures – sponsored abseils, marathons, charity balls, head shaves – all of which are making demands on our wallets. On top of these small-scale events, there are the big telethons: Comic Relief and BBC Children in Need, which raise tens of millions of pounds in the space of a few days.
According to New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), an organisation which helps charities become more effective fund-raisers, the sheer number of competing causes combined with the growing canniness of donors means it is increasingly difficult to get people to part with their cash.
Although statistics from the Charities Aid Foundation suggest charitable giving has continued to grow despite the recession, people are becoming more discerning about which causes they back.
NPC research has found modern donors want to know exactly what impact their money is making. “They are not necessarily interested in statistics, but they are interested in understanding a story and not just the story – oh, there’s this terrible cause – but actually what is done about it,” says Iona Joy, NPC’s head of charity effectiveness.
“They want to see the school being built and lots of school children going to school. They don’t want to see pictures of children in difficult positions with no obvious solution.”
The trend for charity “events” means people also increasingly expect the money they give to be earned through fetes, sponsored silences, marathons or stunts such as lying in a bath of cold baked beans as opposed to dropping a fiver into a can being rattled outside a tube station.
In this climate, individual charities have had to become more innovative in their approach. For some this has meant awareness-raising drives such as mental health charity Rethink’s Find Mike campaign which featured Johnny Benjamin tracking down the man who had stopped him jumping off Waterloo Bridge years earlier.
For others, it has meant a foray into direct marketing – in the form of mail, telephone calls and door-stepping. Charities do this, says Joy, because it often yields results.
In the long-term, however, it can prove counter-productive as donors start to feel they are being harassed. Their negative experience of one charity can affect their perception of charities generally.
A recent NPC survey found one in three people felt charities were putting undue pressure on people to donate. “There is this very fine line between good fundraising practice which is to maintain the relationship, keep people updated, make a regular ask and being seen as pestering,” says Joy.
“What’s interesting is that one person’s successful follow -up – where the donor responds ‘I really like the fact the charity is engaged so I gave them a bit more money’ – is another person’s pestering – where the donor responds: ‘why are they wasting money communicating with me and keeping on sending this stuff?’”
It was against this background that the idea for the Unicef/Commonwealth Games tie-up was born. The charity has a history of using sport in its work with children and has already forged relationships with the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona, so it was a good fit, but the scale of its partnership with Glasgow 2014 was unprecedented and therefore risky.
The opening ceremony featured six films showcasing work in each of the Commonwealth regions and young people from Glasgow who had gone to witness it first-hand.
“We were very aware that this was a great sporting moment, an opening ceremony, not a telethon-style event,” says Unicef’s Commonwealth Games project director, Tom Burstow.
“We needed to do something that would bring together that Commonwealth audience so for us it was about sharing some of the inspiring stories, but also about connecting that with Glasgow – and saying there are inspiring stories from this city too. It was trying to create that unifying moment when we said actually there are challenges in every community and we can come together and do something positive to impact on the lives of children.”
In order to make sure donors know what’s happening to their money, similar films can be viewed in every stadium, while Unicef is also profiting from the sale of Unicef/ Glasgow 2014 merchandise.
“I’ve no doubt other charities looked on with envy at the opening ceremony and that those which are big enough will be looking to get involved in the next national or international sporting event that comes along,” says Joy.
Yet big juggernaut events like this and Comic Relief are not without their critics. Some complain they allow well-known charities – particularly children’s charities – to hog all the limelight, while other, less sexy causes languish in the background.
Others disapprove of the way they use celebrities to prick the consciences of ordinary people while letting politicians off the hooks.
In his book Against Philanthropy, Australian Dr Neil Levy argues that large-scale charitable giving carries with it “serious risks of changing the balance of funding from the public to the private sector, thereby exposing those most in need to the vicissitudes of the market”.
He believes wealth should be redistributed not in an ad hoc way by individuals but through a more effective tax system. In the UK, this argument has been brought to the fore by the economic crisis. As David Cameron ushered in an age of austerity and called for a Big Society to take up some of the slack, the number of food banks rose dramatically.
They provide a vital service – ensuring those whose income is low or erratic or whose benefits have been stopped continue to eat – but, some would argue, the more people they help, the less pressure there is on the government to rethink its programme of welfare cuts.
A similar case can be made about the Unicef/Commonwealth Games hook-up. Scotland has a long tradition of philanthropists from Andrew Carnegie through to Sir Tom Hunter. When McGregor asked people to Put Children First he played on our sense of civic responsibility. But shouldn’t Unicef have been challenging governments to come up with their own solutions?
Of course, when it comes to lobbying, charities are in a no-win situation. Those, like Oxfam, who do take an overtly political stance attract criticism from those who do not wish their money to be spent on promoting a particular ideology.
Burstow however argues Unicef leads by example demonstrating to governments what can be achieved through good practice. “The way we work is to bring together governments and grass roots activities. We try to demonstrate that sport and cultural programmes can be a powerful way of engaging young people so governments can then take them on,” he says.
The good news for Unicef and other charities is that people’s desire to help children tends to over-ride any reservations they have about government failures. “I can under- stand the arguments: big flashy events versus people who are poor and what’s wrong with the system and why are there poor people anyway,” Joy says.
“People who give to children’s charities that work overseas realise governments haven’t managed to solve the problem of inequality. But there are still children who don’t go to school and I think at the back of their minds is the hope that by sending them to school they are creating a future that might be more equitable in the long-term. On the other hand, if they sit around with their wallets closed and wait for governments to sort it out, those children will go without.”
The money raised at the opening ceremony will be used to ensure children across the Commonwealth have a better start in life, that they grow up in an environment where their rights are respected and that they are protected from hunger and easily preventable diseases.
The Unicef/Glasgow 2014 hook-up means they will reap a tangible benefit from a sporting extravaganza that could otherwise have been dismissed as an exercise in self indulgence; and it imbued a gaudy romp featuring giant kilts, inflatable Nessies, dancing Tunnock’s Teacakes with a gravitas and dignity which made the city proud.