There are two interesting things about the story that the departing director of Shelter, Chris Holmes, is giving £25,000 to a charity helping the homeless. First, the very fact of the donation is a heatening piece of news, in keeping with the character of one of the most honourable and dedicated people I have met.
Secondly, and actually more noteworthy, is the fact that the donation has been made public. We are not a good nation of givers, donating less per head than many other rich nations, most notably the US. And when we do give, we hide it under a cloak of anonymity, with typical English reserver, rather than proudly trying to outdo each other in generosity.
Chris Holmes is not a wealthy man but, like many of us middle classes, he is comfortably off thanks to spending a life in relatively senior jobs and – I am guessing – having a wife who works and therefore contributes to the household expenses. There are many of us in this happy state of affairs but few are prepared to give such sums of money and even fewer are prepared to admit to it.
When I had my 50th birthday party, I asked for cheques to be made to my favourite charity, the Railway Children, in lieu of gifts. Over £1,000 was raised, a very worthwhile sum. One friend said he was amazed at my generosity but I was more staggered that he should find it unusual.
Similarly, when the footballer Niall Quinn announced that he was giving all the proceeds of his testimonial to charity, he was widely feted for it. Yet, such arrangements should become the norm in our affluent society. Just as any premiership footballer is hardly in need of an extra £1m or so from adoring fans, neither are middle class professionals like myself in need of a hamper full of gifts by the time we reach 50. It should be a matter of embarrassment for anyone even to consider accepting presents.
The culture of giving needs to become more entrenched as an accepted part – duty even – of the two thirds of society who are pretty well off. Instead, those trying to raise money for charities have to resort to all kinds of tricks to persuade people to part with their money such as sponsored bike rides to far off places, charity auctions and swimathons. But what is wrong with simply opening up one’s chequebook as Chris Holmes has done? And like our Victorian forebears, being proud of it?
I am not talking sacrifice here. We have reached such a level of affluence that it is difficult to think what to spend money on. People upgrade their cars, computers and their electrical appliances merely for the sake of it. Look, for example, at the desperate attempts of the mobile telephone manufacturers to make their users buy newer models simply on the basis that their old ones have become an embarrassment.
The excuse for hanging to one’s money is often the notion that one’s children may need it. Having watched many of my friend’s children go off into the big wide world with all sorts of different financial circumstances, it is clear that the worst possible for many of them is to be blessed with too much money. There are many examples of people whose lives have been permanently blighted by having money too easily available too early in their lives. Of course we want to see our kids have a good start in life, but that does not necessarily mean having everything they want when they ask – or even before they ask.
So follow Chris Holmes’s example and write that cheque to Shelter, the Railway Children or Oxfam now. And keep on writing them regularly. To start us off, I’ll send the fee for this article to one of them.