Fears for Tears; what happened to charities at Christmas?

There are many things that go together at Christmas: mince pies and brandy butter, carols and candles, presents and Father Christmas, TV and falling asleep and, hopefully, charities and giving.

There are many things that go together at Christmas: mince pies and brandy butter, carols and candles, presents and Father Christmas, TV and falling asleep and, hopefully, charities and giving. Evoking powerful emotions and memories is what much of Christmas is about and charities should be at the heart of that, exploiting the association to persuade people to give during the festive season.

Indeed, my favourite ever fundraising appeal was a powerful moral message from Oxfam at Christmas nearly 30 years ago asking this simple question: “When will we say enough is enough?” It highlighted both our consumerism during the festive season and the poverty of those overseas. It was their first appeal to break the half million pound mark and it was the first piece of fundraising that made me cry. A year later, I was working for Oxfam and my career in fundraising was begun.

So when my family collectively stopped to watch a TV ad last week, it would be nice to tell you it was for a charity appeal. It would be good to tell you that our moist eyes and enraptured silence was for a realisation of how lucky we were, and how at Christmas we could say that “enough is enough” and give to charity rather than receive another present.

Sadly our collective TV moment was not for charity. The source of our moment of powerful emotion was Sainsbury’s, yes Sainsbury’s, and their recreation of the 1914 no man’s land football match. It could equally have been for John Lewis and their penguin, Marks & Spencer’s or various other commercial TV Xmas ads that are now so popular.

How did we come to this – that it is commerce not charity, a supermarket not soup runs, that provides the emotions and the passion at Christmas? Well I have to say we should have seen it coming for a while. Corporates have been increasingly cloaking themselves in passionate brands for some time now. Think iPhones and iPads. Think Budweiser and sports events. Think YouTube and music videos. Think Minis and BMWs.

So while corporate brands have become increasingly passionate, charities have been doing a fine job of the opposite; removing all the emotion from much of what they do. A copywriter told me this week how her Xmas TV ad for a charity had 15 layers of approval and sign off. What came out resembled a set of committee minutes more than an appeal for money. Indeed, many charities seem increasingly afraid of moving us or touching our hearts.

Perhaps this is why the last few high profile ways that charities have come into public consciousness – the ice bucket challenge, no make selfies, Stephen Sutton – have bypassed the formal charity processes and in doing so have kept their passion and spontaneity.

It’s time that charities regained the emotional high ground. It’s time we acknowledge that people don’t give because of impact reports, but because of being moved by what they see or hear about how charities help their beneficiaries. It’s time charities took more risks and less risk assessments.

So please, what I’d love for Christmas next year is for a charity to go ahead and make me cry.

Joe Saxton
 

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