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Liam Deacon Headshot

Facebook Philanthropists

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I've had it. I refuse to sponsor one more person to go skydiving, travel across South America collecting pictures of themselves patting wretched children on the head or drive a car across Europe in the name of the environment.

Raising money for, and giving money to, charitable causes are wonderful and laudable acts. But in the age of endless social media requests and internet narcissism something seems to have gone awry with acts of philanthropy. Ever increasingly charitable endeavors seem to be about the active individual enjoying themselves and advertising their godliness rather than raising awareness and money for their chosen cause. And most infuriatingly, by using the label 'for charity' to fund personal adventures some such 'philanthropists' are actually diverting funds away from the causes they purport to endorse.

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Most things people get up to to raise money for charity are both arduous and rewarding. Running a marathon or climbing a mountain is no walk in the park. Much time is spent and hardship endured, and often we sponsor them precisely because they have undergone such a challenge. They may, by chance or choice, happen to also really enjoy running marathons and reap benefits such as increasing their fitness and garnering respect. But this does not undermine the worth of the cause they chose to support or the impressiveness of the feat they achieve in its name.

Other people do things that are scary or just plain silly to raise awareness and money. They go bungee jumping, organize food fights and sponsored silences. We may not admire their accomplishment in the same way as other more impressive and trying feats undertaken in the name of charity, but they are still effective at raising awareness and funds and there's nothing wrong with having a little fun on the way.

I'm not criticising doing unusual, interesting or challenging things in general for charity, but ever more nowadays I am receiving facebook invites from 'friends' to sponsor them to do things that I am dubious about. I'm suspicious that they are doing these extravagant and adventurous things simply because they want to do them, and the money raised is but a meritious side effect. A byproduct they then in turn use to advertise themselves as philanthropists back across social media.

Much has been written about the arrogant and patronizing 'gap year' work that many middle class kids now see as a right of passage. They spend thousands flying to exotic locations to build classrooms and water pumps in impoverished and desolate communities - their intentions are laudable but their efforts are futile. Labour is exorbitantly cheap in such places and the money they spend on their 'adventure' could be used to employ a local to do the same menial labour they undertake for a much longer period of time.

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Examples of 'charitable' endeavors like skydiving and road tripping are hard to justify as remotely charitable or selfless. They're so expensive in their own right that many of us will never have the opportunity to give them a go, and the money spent on undertaking these titillating activates sometime exceeds the surplus that is then passed on to charity.

All this raises questions about the very nature of charity and philanthropy. The historic and somewhat religious notion of duty and personal sacrifice are fading in the West. Large international charities have adapted within the context the consumer society and increasingly employ the techniques of businesses to advertise philanthropy to a market of potential donors. They compete for our attention and money with expensive advertising campaigns and this methodology has filtered down to the individuals undertaking their own charitable campaigns.

So, when we give to charity, what are we doing? A charitable donation is an act of humanity - we are recognizing our personal privilege and making a decision to give away some of our expendable income to other people or causes who are in need of it. But is it a rational act, or a visceral and emotional one? Are we rationally assessing the state of society and the world and selecting causes worthy of our financial grace, or appealing to our innate compassion and emotional intuitions?

I think we are doing both - both these features of the act of giving are valuable. Appealing to human compassion and evoking emotive prompts are effective in promoting charitable acts, but such acts must also be underpinned by a rational understanding of where and why our money spent.

Furthermore, we all value different things; some of us lose sleep over badger culls, others are terrified by the effects of climate change and many are trouble by issues of social injustice and global poverty. We will always disagree about how much, if at all, we are duty bound to give away and to what cause, so we must always respect the free choices of our friends to contribute, or not contribute, to our chosen charitable endeavor.

Before social media the process of collecting sponsors for charitable events was more personal and time consuming. I remember phoning round family members and knocking on neighbour's doors to request a couple of quid towards my sponsored swim. But now, at the click of a button, we can send out thousands of requests to utter strangers demanding their support. As donors, I say it is now increasingly acceptable to be selective and thoughtful about who and what we give to.

In essence I'm glad that social media and market forces (to a degree) have been utilized to further so many worthy causes. But those who are misappropriating the act of charity to further personal goals are the opposite of philanthropists. They are selfish and self-serving. In the age of social media and charity advertising potential donors must remember the rational facet of the act of giving, remind ourselves of what it is we value and the injustices we truly feel are in need of our financial contributions.

Next time you receive a request to fund a mate who wants to hitch hike to Amsterdam for whatever charity, ask yourself two questions - firstly, is there a more direct way of contributing to that charitable cause, or even if there is a different charitable cause that you feel would make better use of your money? Don't feel pressured into pleasing all of your thousands of 'friends' on the internet, and never lose sight of the essence of the act of giving.