Blog post


4 min read
Oct 20, 2012
This blog post is going to serve as something of a pep talk for charitably-minded people. But first, a story (of sorts).

I used to work as a charity fundraiser. When I say that, people usually imagine those guys you get in the street - "charity muggers", or "chuggers" as I've heard them called. Before I tell you what kind of fundraiser I actually was, I'd like to pick apart this delightful little moniker.

I appreciate the similarities. You get collared on the street by someone you weren't expecting to see, who ends up making you part with money that you ordinarily wouldn't part with. In a way, they're doing it for their own benefit - they get paid to do it, and sometimes they get commission based on how many people they sign up, too. So in that sense, too, they share a similarity with a mugger.

One difference that you might point to is the apparent weakness of will that must give rise to the suggestion that a person who ends up writing out his sort code and account number is somehow "mugged" into doing so. A mugger, typically, has some kind of threat on his side, to the tune of (and I was genuinely asked this once) 'do you want to be shanked*?' (my reply was 'no' - what else can you say?). Without this threat, your surrendering your bank details isn't a mugging - it's just you not being able to say "no".

I don't quite accept this line of argument, though. A charity fundraiser does have a kind of threat on his side. Fundraisers are trained not to use language quite as direct as this, but there is always an underlying hint that "if you don't give us some money, something bad will happen" (it's usually framed as "if you do give us some money, we can prevent something bad from happening"). That sounds quite threatening. There are, however, two important differences between the fundraiser's threat and that of the actual mugger. The first is that the fundraiser's threat isn't about you. The threat is that something bad will happen to someone else. Sure, if you don't act in a certain way, you might feel bad, go home and feel guilty, and so on. You might even kick the cat. In this way, the threat is kind of shared by you - it becomes "something bad will happen and you will feel guilty about it". But still, the reason you feel guilty is because something bad is happening to someone else. This, I think, is quite distinct from the rather direct threat of "give me money or I will shank you" offered by the mugger.

The second distinction is that the fundraiser, though they may be preaching about the threat, is not the one who is actually going to perpetrate the bad thing. They do not stand on street corners with kittens, threatening to shoot them unless someone gives them money. They are seeking funding for projects to avert badness, rather than considering the possibility of increasing the badness in the world but with a willingness to refrain if paid off.

The reason for this diatribe about the difference between muggers and "chuggers" is to make a wider point about the status of those who try to do good. While my last blog post bemoaned the fact that global suffering has become a cliché, the purpose of this one is to carp about the fact that those individuals who try to alleviate that suffering are criticised for doing so. The state of society needs some serious revision if it comes to be that the phrase "do-gooder" is a pejorative one. "Ergh, get a load of that guy - he wants to do good! Sickening!". Really?

My overall message, then, to Giving What We Can members and charitable, altruistic people of any stripe, is not to feel downtrodden or browbeaten by those who would ridicule your efforts. Doing good is good, and I don't think this requires much argument. By the same token, doing the most good is the best thing to do. (I am in fact surprised (and a little disappointed) that my spellchecker did not attempt to correct "most good" to "best".) So, the overall moral of this story is not to feel bad about doing good - the incongruity of feeling that way should be obvious.

Oh, and I was a telephone fundraiser, but it doesn't really matter for this story.

For those of you who aren't as street* as myself, "to shank" means "to stab".

**"Street" in this context is an adjective meaning "streetwise", for those of you who aren't as- oh, never mind.