Why are charities obsessed with celebrating anniversaries?

I talked to somebody last week from an overseas development charity which was busy preparing for its 40th anniversary. Not 50th, not 25th, but 40th. This is not unusual. Charities seem to be obsessed with celebrating anniversaries. It doesn’t have to be a particularly significant anniversary, but it does have to be celebrated. For me, charities celebrating anniversaries makes about as much sense as hedgehogs celebrating a new bypass. 

I talked to somebody last week from an overseas development charity which was busy preparing for its 40th anniversary. Not 50th, not 25th, but 40th. This is not unusual. Charities seem to be obsessed with celebrating anniversaries. It doesn’t have to be a particularly significant anniversary, but it does have to be celebrated. For me, charities celebrating anniversaries makes about as much sense as hedgehogs celebrating a new bypass. 

Now we all celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year. Sixty years on the throne is an achievement – only Queen Victoria has reigned for longer. The Jubilee was something to celebrate because so few other people have achieved it. But this isn’t the model for charities, indeed it’s the opposite – charities’ model is to celebrate what is commonplace for most of them. 
 
And what is actually being celebrated by charities? Is the anniversary a celebration of incredible success or significant achievement? Not usually. Or is it a milestone to remind everybody how little progress has been made? Not usually either. Rarely is it anything other than a celebration of being a bit older. 
 
When I went to work for Oxfam in 1988, the 50th anniversary was already two years in preparation for an event still four years away. Despite the massive time and energy resources put into the 50th anniversary celebrations at Oxfam, the anniversary passed with the same panache as a small box of fireworks in the back garden on a drizzly November night. The truth is that to the rest of the media, average donor or member of the public, charity anniversaries are deeply dull (the only exception I am aware of was the Scout’s centenary celebration in 2007, which was hugely successful). 
 
So despite all the evidence, why do charities go on wasting time and energy on anniversaries?
 
To be honest I have no idea. My guess is that the trustees or CEO of these charities get carried away with a self-inflated sense of their own and their organisation’s importance. And once the idea takes hold, driven by some dominant trustee who cannot take no for an answer, the celebrations stumble their way towards climax. 
 
It’s the organisational equivalent of a messy, unsatisfactory loss of virginity in the back of a car after an end of year dance.  So much was promised, so little was delivered and the morning after everybody is found, head in hands, saying ‘what were we thinking?’
 
So please, scrap those anniversary plans and instead do something more useful with your charity’s time, money and talent. 
 

Joe Saxton

 

Does this set off fireworks in you? Or has the point bypassed you? Leave us a comment below.

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