19 November 2013, The Tablet

Must we rely on celebrities and stunts to make us give to our neighbour in need?

by Daniel Kearney

Two contrasting images stuck fast in my mind last week. The first was a young Filipina girl on the evening news shown rammed against an iron gate pleading for water, the other, two senior school boys in the playground of the school where I am headmaster, squirting water at each other. The boys were unaware, profligate and having fun, and the girl, desperate, thirsty and at her wits’ end.

These images symbolised different worlds – a world of plenty and a world of hardship and poverty. Later, a pupil approached me and asked if we could have an “own clothes day” to raise money for the Filipino people affected by the Typhoon Haiyan. I asked him why we needed to have an own clothes day. Why we could not turn up in uniforms and still pay two pounds? “It’s not as fun,” he replied. My heart sank. On reflection, I thought I had been a little hard on him. He was, after all, sincere in his heart. He wanted to help.

On Friday I asked some sixth form students what would be the response if someone appeared on the television with a serious demeanour and a suit and simply asked us to donate. “You wouldn’t get anything.” I despaired again. “Why?” I enquired. “Because you have to do something to get money out of people.” I knew they were right. We are always willing to give to a person who bungee jumps for a good cause.

Then, later that evening the extravaganza of BBC’s Children in Need dominated our television screens – a whole host of celebrities and ordinary people using their imagination and invention to draw pledges of financial support out of the population. “If we make you laugh or cry, you might donate” seemed to be the philosophy.

Surely the sheer suffering of our fellow human beings should be enough to generate a response. Do we really need to be entertained or amused to demonstrate our love of neighbour?

Just when I thought we had failed to inculcate in our pupils this fundamental belief, I received a phonecall from a parent. Her daughter had raised money in school for a cancer charity. Someone had suggested that she should present the over-sized cheque to the charity and have her photograph taken for the local paper. The young girl was distraught. “I don’t want any attention,” she argued. “I just want to help”.

Surely this is the right and proper attitude and mindset to charitable giving. When we walk down the high street and drop a few coins in a box, do we need a sticker, worn with the pride of a military medal, on our coat to prove we have made a contribution to the war on poverty?

Many people might argue that the end justifies the means. If we entertain people or leave them in tears and this feeds the hungry, then all well and good. I disagree.

We will have an own clothes day this coming Friday. I hope – and pray – that some, if not all, of our pupils will come to school in their uniforms and quietly, unobtrusively hand over their donation.

Daniel Kearney is the headmaster of St Bede’s College, a Catholic private school in Manchester

What do you think?


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User comments (3)

Comment by: Edd Bartlett
Posted: 22/11/2013 17:37:11

I entirely agree with you Daniel, one of my pet hates it watching TV programmes that follow celebrities (with my girlfriend) who occasionally make extravagant donations to, for example, war torn families. These donations are always highly emphasized, but when compared to that persons income, a drop in the ocean. I hope I'm not being too skeptical when I say it's largely for the camera!!

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 22/11/2013 11:40:56

A thought provoking piece. We do seem to have gone head over heels for this idea that without entertainment there can be no giving. Perhaps it doesn't really matter, but it can sometimes seem like making the poor, vicariously at least, sing for their supper.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 22/11/2013 09:33:52

In England you tie your moral guyrope to a different ring on the wharf. You have a utilitarian grasp of morality, which ends up with the ends justifying the means. So if dancing clowns harvest the most donations, so be it. In Germany the means must proceed from the principle, so that dancing clowns seem inappropriate against a background of (say) starving children. It's not a matter to be celebrated. But how does all that square with the gospel, where the left hand (the public/the press) should not be able to see what the right hand (the school) is giving? To uphold this, isn't it better to stick with the principle "give, but give quietly"?

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