Giving food might make us feel virtuous, but giving cash is better

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It’s sitting under the Christmas tree, untouched: a giant tub of Heroes that was kindly brought by a friend to a festive soiree at my flat. I’m definitely not going to eat them, and I still have stocks of stollen and gingerbread for anyone else who visits. In years past I would have taken any surplus chocolates into the office, where colleagues already stuffed with turkey and mince pies would have worked their way through them despite not really wanting them. But now there’s another option – I can take them to a food bank.

While pondering the logistics of this, I can’t help but wonder who might receive my donation and how they might feel about it. Perhaps the Heroes will go to a single mother of three who has struggled to provide any Christmas presents to the little ones this year. Maybe they’ll whoop with delight when they spot the big red tub in among their UHT milk and budget baked beans, and she’ll feel grateful that an unknown stranger decided her need was greater than theirs.

How utterly patronising. It’s not for me to decide who is deserving of my gift, or even to assume that anyone in need would even want it. Maybe the real-life version of my saintly single mum strictly limits the chocolate intake of her children and spends what little income she has on fresh fruit. Maybe she has suffered from bulimia in the past. Maybe the children aren’t the scrawny poor Dickensian souls of my imagination, but clean-faced, rosy-cheeked and obese. The point is, I really don’t know, and it’s none of my business. The food bank co-ordinators may decide to give out handfuls of chocolates instead of donating them all to one family. Perhaps they’ll give the tub to their volunteers to share. They’ll use their discretion, and this is how it should be.

People want to help, but generally they want to do so on their own terms

It’s tempting for me to supplement my donation with another bag or two of shopping, perhaps informed by the “most needed” list on the Trussell Trust’s website. But wouldn’t it make more sense for me to donate money? That way the charity can buy exactly what is needed, at wholesale prices, rather than leaving recipients to take pot luck with what strangers have decided they deserve. The charity would surely be able to get more bang for my bucks if we were to cut out the middle man’s share, the transport and storage costs, and the careful checking of best-before dates. Putting distance between donors and recipients in this way might may make the giving experience less personal, but I’m not the one who matters here. My dignity and self-respect are not being eroded by the circumstances in which I find myself. On the contrary, I’m a very fortunate person who has found herself with 712 grammes of spare sweets.

Ever since September 2014, when George Square in Glasgow was symbolically but misguidedly filled with a sea of grocery bags, the trend for conspicuous in-kind donation has continued. This year the refugee crisis inspired volunteers across Scotland to set up donation points in town halls, churches and mosques that were quickly filled to bursting with … well, whatever they were filled with. Groups began issuing wish lists to steer donors in the right direction. One list included warm jumpers, size 7-8 men’s shoes and iPhones. One suspects many more children’s clothes and toys were donated than were needed, partly because comfortably-off families tend to have plenty of these going spare but also because children are seen as deserving of aid in a way that adults fleeing exactly the same conflict are not. There’s a scene in the classic nineties film Clueless in which the kind-hearted but ditsy lead character decides to spearhead a local disaster relief effort. When her decision to donate a pair of skis is queried, she responds earnestly “Some people lost all of their belongings – don’t you think that includes athletic equipment?” There’s a reason why charities do it better.

People want to help, but generally they want to do so on their own terms. Media images of young Middle Eastern men battling their way onto trains and buses in Europe did little to inspire public sympathy, and localised aid efforts only really got going after people were confronted with the upsetting image of a drowned child. Donating supplies to a refugee camp in Calais was never going to stop parents risking it all to escape chaos in the Middle East by sea – if anything it might have had the opposite effect – but people felt “something must be done”, and so they did something.

Traditional charities have taken a public relations battering in recent years, with increased scrutiny of how they spend the funds they raise, and in particular of chief executive salaries. But there are good reasons why charities operate as they do, and why they spend significant sums on fundraising, advertising and compliance. If charities did not invest in talented fundraisers, their coffers would quickly run dry. If they did not invest in slick advertising campaigns, the public would not have sufficient awareness and understanding of the cause, or sympathy for those affected. If they did not keep accurate records of their incomings and outgoings, they would fall foul of charity regulators and leave themselves open to damaging claims of mismanagement.

Those who set up their own pop-up voluntary operations are presumed to be saint-like and pure

While the salaries of charity “fat cats” raise eyebrows regardless of how these organisations perform, those who set up their own pop-up voluntary operations are presumed to be saint-like and pure, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it, not worrying about any of that red-tape, bureaucratic, health-and-safety-gone-mad nonsense. The political symbolism of food banks is so potent that to question their efficiency or their management is to risk being branded a heartless penny-pincher or, worse still, a Tory apologist. It was a brave whisteblower who drew attention to alleged financial irregularities at Greater Maryhill Foodbank, which closed earlier this month after its founder failed to provide receipts for a new security system that was installed after a break-in.

It it of course right to question how all charities operate, and indeed whether in some cases there are too many of them competing for funds to support for the same cause or beneficiary, but it’s also worth questioning how much supermarket shareholders gain when people buy extra food at retail prices to pop in the food bank trolley. This act might look and feel virtuous, and there’s no doubting the overall good intentions of those who give, but when people are in dire need what matters the most is maximising aid and helping as many people as possible, regardless of how photogenic or sympathetic they may be. There are well-run charities poised to re-stock food banks shelves, and to provide everything from clothes and blankets to stoves and tents to refugees. Giving to them might feel impersonal and anonymous, and it won’t free up any space in your cupboards, but it will definitely help.

A version of this article first appeared in The Herald.

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