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Guess my profession: working in a much maligned sector

I wonder if you can guess what I do as a job. I’ll give you a clue…

When I tell people where I work they’re often sceptical, sometimes incensed. Further probing can lead to public shouting matches and the smashing of glass objects. Many promising new relationships have been ruined in this way. The conversation will be flowing effortlessly, with laughter in all the right places, until we get to that place in the script:

“What do you do for a living?”

I’ll break eye contact here, clear my throat and offer up my answer apologetically.

The more violent reactions seem to come from my dad’s friends. He’s introduced me to a few people, only to come back a few minutes later to find a somewhat sulky silence and shattered glass at our feet.

Banker may have been your first guess. Estate agent, politician, lawyer, police officer – no wait, that’s me just reading out the list of the world’s most hated professions.

I actually work for a charity. And since the beginning of my career I’ve been shocked at how often I‘ve had to defend myself for this. For some reason, whether they give to a charity or not – and usually not in the case of the most incensed – people delight in holding me to account for the work I do. It’s as if I were running the whole sector exclusively from the money in their pockets.

If you’re wondering what abuse they could possibly be hurling my way, find a news article about giving to charity and scroll down to the comments section. For some reason, this is most effective on the Guardian’s website. There you’ll find the typically circulated arguments:

  • Charities are keeping all donations to pay their CEOs
  • Charities spend all donations on ‘admin’ and nothing gets to the cause
  • Charities are wasting all their money on campaigning

To the sceptics, especially on the first two points, I ask you to watch this video – as I simply can’t put the argument in better words myself:

In terms of campaigning, I will only dignify this point with a short response. Having worked within several campaigning teams, I have seen first hand the positive power the charity sector can have. Influencing at this level is one of the most important parts of the work we do. It creates long-term change by tackling the root of a problem, rather than simply fire fighting at the frontline to dispel the symptoms.

But these aren’t the only arguments against us. There’s also the negative stigma surrounding fundraisers; whether ‘chugging’ on the street, knocking on doors or clogging the phone lines, they’re painted as thieving pests, the ultimately positive motivations for their work often overlooked. There’s also a fair amount of criticism surrounding the amount we spend on foreign aid.

This tirade of negative feeling towards the voluntary sector is, for me, completely baffling. It sits alongside certain toxic arguments circulating in the UK at the moment which make me ashamed to live here, and are personified in the very existence and growing popularity of UKIP. The labelling of benefit claimants as scroungers and the hostility towards immigrants are a few such shameful examples. I cringe to think how this kind of rhetoric makes us look to international audiences.

I very much hope that these issues have been exaggerated by the media and politicians rather than forming the general consensus for public opinion. I fear, though, that one has rather lead to inflating and cementing the other. Certain publications delight in cherry-picking the very few examples of corruption – the charity CEO expensing their Las Vegas blow out, the woman with 14 kids living on welfare – and presenting these as the behavioural norm.

What baffles me most is that we are a sector entirely dedicated to doing a good thing. Our work isn’t motivated by money. Yes, most of us do get paid, another thing people are often surprised by, but it’s not the reason we get out of bed. We could earn a lot more investing our skills elsewhere. The driver is the chance to make a positive change. Whether it’s an orphaned child or a victim of domestic violence, we work for the people we hope to help. Above anyone we would hate to see a penny of our precious and kindly gifted donations wasted or used inappropriately.

Looks pretty sinister, huh?

Looks pretty sinister, huh?

And yet, bankers – who are, in my experience, transparent about what they do, fully aware of its questionable morality and almost exclusively motivated by profit – probably get about the same amount of daily abuse about their careers.

This summer I’m going to be volunteering (yes, that means I won’t even get paid!) for a charity that might just have the answer to changing some of these attitudes for good.

Global Giving is a fundraising platform which connects people directly to grassroots charitable projects all over the world. They use their website and the immediacy of technology to connect donor and cause together more closely than has before been possible. Instead of giving to a larger charity, seeing their money absorbed and usually uninformed about the exact way it’s been spent or the difference it’s made, donors can give directly to smaller organisations, where it’s easier to be more transparent. These charities then send donors regular reports on their project, how it’s progressing and the impact it’s making – directly to their inboxes.

Check it outBut Global Giving isn’t simply a donations facilitator. It also strives to make sure all their project partners are making best use of the money they can generate through the website, offering support, training schemes and fundraising drives. As a volunteer I will be visiting five projects across Central and South America to evaluate their work and offer hands-on help and suggestions where I can.

I’m extremely excited to be working with such a forward thinking organisation. To me, the work of Global Giving will be the beginning of a revolution in the charity sector to use the incredible tools we now have at our disposal to address some of the concerns among the public, and demonstrate to sceptics exactly what we’re trying to achieve, fuelling ever growing understanding and support.

In the meantime, I’ll continue combating public opinion one broken glass object and alienated new acquaintance at a time. Who knows, soon I might even begin to change some opinions before throwing anything.

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