Delving Into the Dark Art of Charity Giving

Catherine Wijnberg


Own up if your heart sank when the Mandela day emails started to flow in. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire the legacy of Mandela, almost to the point of hero-worship. I believe in making a difference in the world, and yet something akin to fury arose  at the use of Mandela Day to elicit my money! Oh dear, what an uncomfortable thing to admit, but perhaps I’m not alone?

Exploring the reasons people donate points to a handful of drivers. Firstly, we donate to assuage our guilt, whatever it is. Secondly, we donate out of fear; that of becoming a victim ourselves, sensing that there but for the grace of God go I. Thirdly, an ingrained sense of duty compels us to do the right thing. For some, giving is a badge of honour, arguably, inflating a superiority complex.

Simply put though, giving is an act filled with emotion, frequently offering an antidote to feelings we wish to avoid.

So, what drives the direction we donate? We choose to support animals or children, the elderly or the environment according to their meaning and importance for us. Professional charities know this, and build their campaigns accordingly. Chances are that if asked to choose between starving children or starving animals, your answer would be definitive. But given the choice between giving poor people water or electricity, you might find the decision more difficult.

Tough questions indeed! Perhaps it is the very difficult nature of these decisions that makes some citizens zone out and give to no-one, turning a blind eye because the choice is just too hard to bear?

But knowing that some do (at least occasionally) put a hand in the pocket, what inspires us to so? A quick informal survey amongst my friends revealed that it’s the stories, which tap into our emotional charges and touch our heart, that open our wallet. Pictures especially elicit strong emotions and inspire us to take action.

More than that, I am learning that stories about people we know, or can relate to are the most compelling. The people near me, the people like me, the dog that looks like a puppy I once owned, the plastic bag in the sea where I swam in Bali… Stories that touch us personally, do so most deeply, and that’s what prompts us to act. It is that sense of ownership that makes us take responsibility for our own link in the chain, and want to make it better, to make the problem go away – to make a difference.

When stories speak to us personally, we step forward to fix things.

All of this is helpful when running a campaign, such as Fetola’s Plant the Seed – Help Kids Read campaign. What we are learning is that fundraising “sure ain’t easy” as they say in the movies. My learning about donating and giving has been more than academic. I need to know that I am not the only one feeling “plea fatigue”, and that I am also not alone in my giving too.

In the end, mastering the dark art of giving – or getting others to give – requires an understanding that everything is, ultimately, personal. I’ve decided it’s okay to give from guilt, and okay to tough it out with “No, not today.” I also believe it’s fine to feel irritated by poorly written Mandela Day requests and to donate on my own terms to the people and causes that I personally believe in. What a wonderful feeling it is to be able to make a difference!

Catherine Wijnberg
CEO and Founder of Fetola