He Has Done a Lot for Charity

Last week’s Livestrong 15th Anniversary event in Austin, Texas, looked like an odd occasion.

Everyone there seemed pretty sure that they were still doing a good thing, but there an was inevitable discomfort about the context of the overwhelming revelations of the USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong’s doping behaviours.

“If Lance doped, that certainly takes away from his athletic wins. However, to survive what he did and come back at all is impressive. To come back and create good like he did with Livestrong is even better,” said Bob Kile, a throat cancer survivor from Washington and Livestrong supporter.

Sean Penn sounded fuzzy in his effort to be more sure: “Of course he remains an inspiration. I think anybody who’s looking with a very clear eye at this would find themselves hypocritical to consider otherwise.”

While Lance Armstrong will remain a hero for some and a paradox for many others, the fall of Jimmy Saville in the public eye is unequivocal. The actions of Saville the charity fundraiser not only look insignificant next to the ever growing trail of destruction of Saville the sex offender, they look like a way of creating the shadows in which the latter could work.

Weighing up the good and bad of these men’s lives is what happens on these occasions, with charitable actions normally chalked up on the virtuous side of the board. The concept and role of charity within society does not always come out well from these debates: it looks like some kind of moral offset scheme.

Modern corporate responsibility theory shuns the old school approach to philanthropy for exactly that reason, but charity continues to be used as a way of justifying “business as usual” across main functions and activities of companies. The media and current government often enable and encourage this separation, by lauding the obvious, extrinsic contributions of organisations.

Within the Coalition’s post-bail out Project Merlin agreement with the financial sector, contributions to the voluntary sector through the Big Society Bank have been loudly sold as a key way of “giving back” to the society that paid for their wild profligacy. Meanwhile, changes to the main means by which they impact society have all been quietly dropping off the radar – under-regulated trading activities, cripplingly low levels of lending, bloated, ring-fenced bonuses and socially unacceptable levels of tax on their profits.

Before the crash, moral offsetting within the financial sector was rife as a distraction technique. Vulnerable older people, for example, were supported in their hundreds through the odd donation to charity and ripped off in their thousands through the mis-selling of financial products they didn’t need or understand. Between 2005-10, HSBC deliberately mis-sold 5 year investments to 2,485 elderly customers who were in care and had life expectancies of 2-3 years, forcing them to incur heavy charges for early withdrawals. During the same period, HSBC HQ and many of its branches supported older people’s charities.

That charitable acts and donations provide self-justification and external cover for individuals and organisations is not exactly a revelation. And nor is support for the sensible response – to empower good ethics auditing organisations like Sedex and to learn from charities like Amnesty International that apply rigorous internal vetting to potential donors and partners.

But for us, a behaviour change organisation, its just one part of a bigger, consequential separation between everyday, mainstream activities and culture and what is made to look like an odd little world stuck on the side, where good lives.

For celebrities and businesses, who can pop into this world for a quick moral top up or offset, this seems to work pretty well. And the organisations and individuals that need their support, especially during these very tough times, go along with it because this arrangement provides profile and funding for their good work.

But we are often reminded that this arrangement is not progressive. It makes it harder for social organisations to get right into the workings of the machine and affect the mainstream behaviours of individuals and businesses. If charity appears to many as a once-a-year fancy dress activity, a 10p donation when you vote on the X Factor or a corporate team building day at a local playground, then when these same causes need to radically affect the way we live our lives, this voice is easily patted on the head and dismissed.

There are loads of complex issues in here. The concept of charity in society and its relationship with genuine progress is complex and full of tensions. Moreover, people and businesses will continue to want to do good things with a bit of spare time or income and their appetite for that shouldn’t be criticized.

The bit that we take out of this complexity is to try and avoid the whole debate completely. Nothing we create now sells itself as good, green or the right thing to do, because we know that among the potential assumptions about the relevance and mainstream credibility of those are lots of risk factors.

But we realize that this solution, this keeping our social aims in the background, is a compromise in response something undesirable: the separation of good into an alternative space within mainstream culture. Every time charity and social change appears in a debate about an Armstrong or a Saville or big banks, this separation becomes more awkward and undesirable.