"Sponsor Me To Have Fun"

The path towards disappointing a friend starts well before the act that gives rise to the disappointment. The groundwork is laid in misinterpretations, filtering, topics that never came up, and the fact that sometimes you just don’t know the random things you or somebody else feels strongly about. Until you suddenly find that your views are quite different.

On my side, my view on the issue was crystallised about half a year before it surfaced, and it was when I started getting more and more emails from work people I barely knew, which were emails to everyone in our department or everyone in the company asking for contributions to a charity event that the sender was participating in.

What kind of event?

They were cycling the Sahara, or jogging Nepal, or hanging out for six weeks in an isolated Sumatran Island helping to carry baby turtles by hand to special hatching mounds, or some such thing. You probably know what I’m talking about.

At first I thought: interesting…. Then, as I started getting more of them, I began to think: wait just a minute…

The angle of the email was always the charity, but the tone betrayed the person’s excitement about doing something AMAZING. And I began to view these kinds of endeavour with increasing cynicism and irritation. Were they really doing this for charity, or was the charity just the pretext?

Look at it from an extreme counter-view. If you locked yourself into a telephone booth with a nest of wasps to highlight the plight of animals, or (more seriously) went without food for 40 hours to highlight the suffering of starving people, those are one way to get the message across. Even though there’s an element of stuntmanship involved, and of oversimplification of what the sufferers endure in the real world, the point is sort of valid. The person doing those tasks is exhibiting a kind of empathy with those who are less fortunate.

But in contrast, if you’re doing something amazing like motor-biking the Great Wall of China “for charity”, is it nasty of me to think that maybe you might have an ulterior motive? That you’re the one doing something awesome, and that I’m the one who is being asked to donate to the charity? That you get to go scuba diving in Baku for (insert name of charity and semi-plausible association with what you’re doing)… while I get out my wallet sponsor you to do it?

In other words, the not-too-unsubtle advertising tag-line is:
“Will you sponsor me to have fun”?

Well… I kind of say ‘No!!!’ to that!

I know it’s not that simple. I understand that charities need money, and will go to any means to get it. They are competing with sleazy people who send emails asking if I want to buy V1agra or give my bank account details to some guy in The Sudan so I can get a share of some money they’ve got their eye on, or the hotel chain I used ONCE but years later still send me bloody newsletters and have labyrinthine unsubscribe options.

And let’s be honest, unlike the people offering to make me a demon in bed or provide me with authentic-looking degrees from prestigious non-accredited universities, charities don’t offer much. You know, directly. So they appeal to my philanthropy or appeal to my guilt and that’s about it. And those are not compelling and sexy marketing propositions, they might argue.

So it makes sense that charities need to get more sophisticated. Like, with spending money in order to make money. Or to create spectacle in exchange for media exposure.

But I still don’t like the idea. Especially when I get yet another person hijacking our corporate intranet telling me they’re taking five weeks off to bobsled across the Arctic and see the Northern Lights ‘for charity’. Because… are you taking your camera with you, or are you truly being selfless?

But let’s get personal rather than hypothetical.

Earlier this week, I was at work, sitting at my desk when I got an email from a friend asking whether I wanted to participate in a twenty mile (twenty mile??) nighttime walk around London, taking in the sights and the architecture, drinking champagne, indulging in a night of entertainment and fun complete with a ride on the London Eye and a morning breakfast afterwards.

And being in the midst of the usual boring work-related malaise that has continued unbroken for almost all of this year, it sounded rather excellent, and to summarise my response: “I’ll do it!”

I was told there was a £26 fee, and the money would go to charity.

Again, I’m not anti-charity, and I still love the idea. Happy to do it. Count me in.

But then….

…about two hours later I get a forwarded email from the group organiser via my friend, and I learn that in addition to the entry fee, each team of 4-6 people agrees, by participating in the event, to the obligation of raising an ADDITIONAL £1300 pounds for the charity.

I’m sorry… what?

Yes, they expect me to raise money. And, if you went to the bottom of the email and clicked on it to get to the website and navigated to the event and downloaded the last page of the pdf file and read the small writing near the bottom it was there, plainly. But it certainly wasn’t in the email I was sent, which basically went “Are you all up for a good time?!”

And… NO. I won’t do it. I get back to my friend and the organiser and say I’m going to have to say NO.

The friend asks me why.

I say: It’s complicated. (And lengthy. Refer above)

They respond: give it to me in 20 words or less

I respond in less than 20 words.

They respond: Oh. That’s disappointing, and add that it’s an ‘obligation’ not a ‘legally binding’ contract for me to raise more money.

Well, sure, but to me they’re much the same thing.

So I’m out.

And I’m annoyed because I can see what the charity is doing even more clearly from the other side of the equation now. They’ve outsourced their collection activities away from having to pay people a profit percentage to collect money on street corners, to now giving people incentives to harvest their closest networked friends and contacts in exchange for something cool.

Think about the underlying financials. The event costs money, the ‘free’ included champagne costs money, and rides on the London Eye cost money, and whatever permissions or road closures are involved, they cost money too. It’s all rather expensive. So I reckon the person doing the ‘amazing event’ is probably paying for these costs in their entry fee, while the money they raise from donations is the money the charity gets.

I know that it’s being done for a logical, rational reason, but I don’t like it any more for knowing that.

Charities realise that people find it hard to give the time of day (let alone hard currency) to a perfect stranger on a busy street, but more difficult to say ‘no’ to a friend. And not just any sort of friend but the more lively, boisterous, outgoing kind that is attracted to the sort of events that the charities are now setting up specifically to attract them.

So in that regard, participants are not donating any money directly anyway. They’re donating their fund-raising ability. Or, since it really only requires an email or a facebook post to everyone they know, they’re donating the contents of their email address book, their workplace email addresses, and access to their facebook friends. They are, in other words, donating the kind of things that organisations don’t have direct access to without prior consent from the owner, which is very hard to get.

And I have a big problem with this.

If Pepsi paid my friends to send me emails on their behalf telling me how awesome Pepsi is, I would be furious. But charities are bypassing this. And I know there’s a cause involved, and it’s not for profit, and that’s why it’s different. But the principle is the same.

Unsolicited emails are spam, and I was never given an option to opt out of getting marketing messages from my friends. These customs are being bypassed since of course nobody would tell their friends ’don’t ever send me charity emails’ because that’s socially tricky too. Also, charities can’t legally get away with bait and switch advertising (“It’s AWESOME (scroll down nine pages and six links and check the fine print) – by the way, you need to raise £1300 for us”), but who would call their friends, or friends of their friends, for not disclosing the terms and conditions of an event up front in a handwritten email? Nobody. Not even me.

And besides, who asks detailed questions like ‘Where is my money going? Who is bearing the cost of the event? Is this a registered charity?’, and instead accepts the whole thing on the faith of the legitimacy of the internet link at the bottom of the email and the name of the person who sent it? All the things that an organisation should do – would be required to do –we forgive in our friends. The person who sent the email didn’t mention a charity, and the organiser didn’t even state it in their email – they just put a weblink on the bottom of it. And that’s WRONG.

And even if I dislike it from that direction, I WILL NOT be party to it.

Especially not for a cause that I am taking up purely because I like the underlying cool event that is being set up. Which is the case here.

…At this time it bears some mentioning that the charity involved is a legitimate charity. It is a serious cause, and it is one that should be contributed to. I think the money is going to an excellent and meritworthy cause. But the mechanism they are utilising is one that I personally disagree with.

It also bears mentioning that I have already offered to sponsor my friend who is doing the event. For one thing, I think it’s likely that by doing this, more of my money will go to the charity directly, and not on champagne for participants. Or rides on the London Eye. Or so I like to believe.

Two more things.

Firstly, my friend actually said ‘no’ to accepting my offered donation because she didn’t want me to feel hypocritical about the cause. Which stunned me. We apparently have a difference of opinion whereby I’m not willing to raise money for charity but will contribute, while she is happy to raise money for charity but also refuse it on their behalf. That makes no sense. But I don’t condemn her directly – she is raising money, she has approached her friends, she sent links on facebook and is going out and taking this seriously, which is great for the charity because she is very organised and motivated. She is the person who you want on your side for this kind of thing because she is selfless and excellent in sales and marketing, where as I am not.

Secondly, I would like to point out that while my friend and I are at opposite sides of this debate, there are many more people in our group who have committed to doing the event but have not approached their friend base or facebook group for donations. They are happy to participate in the event but not raise any money- after all, as even the charity has stated, it’s an obligation. But they’ll wear the t-shirt and the over-the-shoulder bag or whatever the charity is planning for them to wear in order to stand out. They’ll make up part of the mass of people whose size will hopefully provide media exposure for the charity and encourage more donations.

So I guess the charity benefits from all of us in different ways, and everyone wins?

Well, not quite.

My friend and I are still not communicating directly.

POSTSCRIPT 1: I have since become aware of a particular foundation that sets out to promote people to do seemingly whatever they want under the tag-line “Mission Possibe”. That is – you decide what you do, then do it. So now, it seems the charities are not even coming up with the events themselves: they’re asking you to come up with the event AND choose your charity AND solicit your friends for money AND collect the money for them as well. Are you kidding me??

POSTSCRIPT 2: My friend and I are now communicating directly again (phew!)

"Sponsor Me To Have Fun"


Joined July 2007

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Artist's Description

An unpopular view on the ‘Sponsor Me To Have Fun’ charity model

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