Dispatch from the Midnight Moo

Image of Matthew Engel

It’s a warm Saturday evening in July and 2,000 grown-up women, of various ages and shapes, are gathered in a shopping centre. They are not, on this occasion, spending money.

All of them are wearing pink T-shirts and, to a greater or lesser extent, some kind of cow costume. At midnight, amid whoops and cheers and a few tears, they set off into the rather Kafkaesque streets of Milton Keynes for a 10-mile walk. It is well past dawn when the stragglers return.

The occasion is the Midnight Moo, an event that began only last year but which now seems like a permanent fixture on the borough’s charitable and social calendar. It was devised by the fundraisers for the local Willen Hospice, who adapted the concept of the MoonWalk – a night-time charity walk involving women displaying their bras – which has raised millions of pounds to fight breast cancer.

Organisers at Milton Keynes hoped to raise at least £200,000. This would make a significant difference to the hospice, which has to generate three-quarters of its own funding. The event’s popularity is not in doubt: it was full six weeks in advance. And the male half of the population was not even invited.

Nights like this have become a staple feature of British life. Signing a sponsorship form for a friend (or a friend’s child) is now part of the general give-and-take of social intercourse. A large proportion of social life revolves round events raising money for some kind of common good, in the community or beyond. The comedian Harry Enfield made “It’s for chari-dee” into a national catchphrase. The British have come to assume this is part of the human condition. Curiously, it isn’t.

Britain is certainly not the most charitable country – the international comparisons are fascinating – but it is the one that has most successfully integrated giving into day-to-day life. And in a country more inclined to self-flagellation than self-congratulation, there might perhaps be something here to celebrate.

There are 180,000 registered charities in Britain, half of them raising less than £10,000 a year. They range from Cancer Research UK (income £498m; expenditure £460m) to the likes of the 1st Cefn Mawr Boy Scout Group (income £0; expenditure £110).

Charity is hardly a modern concept. St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is pretty hot on the point (“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth”) even before mentioning that it outstrips both faith and hope – however, it is clear that Paul was thinking of something broader than just handing out money.

Once the welfare state became established in the 1940s, charity became a fairly abstract notion. There was Oxfam, responding to the latest horrors in distant corners of the planet; the RSPCA looked after animals; unfortunate children were the province of Dr Barnardo’s and the grimly named League of Pity. Middle-class children would attend fancy-dress parties on their behalf; perhaps the poor mites might have a holiday in Bournemouth. The Boy Scouts would raise money by offering their members as cheap labour during “bob-a-job week”. Otherwise, local fundraising initiatives were a rarity in the early postwar decades. There was fullish employment and decreasing inequality; I never saw a beggar until I was 14 and first went to France.

The turning-point was 1981, the first year of the London Marathon. That was riding one social phenomenon: an increasingly sedentary society’s urge for exercise. Within a year it was riding another: the need to raise money. The marathon’s charitable dimension grew in tandem with Thatcherism. Equality was out; unemployment was in; beggars were everywhere; life was a race, and the state would not necessarily take care of the hindmost.

These days, about four-fifths of marathon entrants are raising money, and charities have the right to block-book places. But this is not the pattern anywhere else. “If you go to the New York Marathon,” says the journalist John Bryant, the London Marathon’s historian, “most of the people running for charity are British.”

The connection between exertion and charity has become completely ingrained among the British, as Bryant himself discovered when he decided, on a whim, to run the length of the Thames. “People said ‘That’s fantastic. Can I give some money to your charity?’ But I wasn’t doing it for charity. It seems endemic in British society, but it doesn’t apply anywhere else.”

From London came trickle-down: to provincial marathons and half-marathons, sponsored parachute jumps, long-distance rows, canoe trips, cycle rides, swims and heaven knows what else. The ultimate perhaps came last year when the comedian Eddie Izzard, who had previously never run for a bus, ran a marathon for Sport Relief every day (except Sundays) for seven weeks. But the phenomenon is not confined to the ambitiously athletic – if personal challenge is involved, anything seems to me legitimate: a friend of mine with a phobia about motorways raised £400 for the Teenage Cancer Trust by getting herself sponsored to drive four miles down the M54.

We know where charity begins; only occasionally does one wonder where it ends. I have been asked to sponsor schoolchildren’s trips, not to Bournemouth, but to Borneo. And the other week I received a handsomely produced letter from strangers hundreds of miles away, asking me to sponsor their daughter to help make her a jet-ski racing champion.

But donating money should never be confused with selflessness. One of the great drivers of the British boom has been justgiving.com, a brilliantly successful website that enables fundraisers to set up their own pages and accept credit card payments. JustGiving is, however, a commercial operation. Its great strength is that it painlessly collects “Gift Aid”, the 28 per cent government top-up for charitable giving. It then siphons off five per cent of all Gift Aided donations. “We resent it,” one charity executive told me, “but it works.”

And the most successful charities do seem to be those that speak directly to people’s experiences and fears. Cancer Research has benefited from its highly popular (and very sponsorable) Race for Life – but there is not a family in the land wholly untouched by cancer, and it speaks to everyone’s private terror. To some extent, people give to save themselves.

When I talk to the pink-clad walkers milling round before the start of the Midnight Moo, I expect them to tell me it is primarily a lark, and that the charity aspect is a secondary consideration. Not so. Clearly, it is fun to be involved: “It’s like a giant hen party,” as one participant puts it, “minus the strippers”. There is a powerful sense of female comradeship: the organisers are not stupid in barring men. And there may even be a hint of Milton Keynesishness in the mix. In a place with no history, constantly sneered at by outsiders (journalists who call the streets “Kafkaesque” for instance), they are in part making a statement about their own community – concrete cows being the local motif.

But, above all, they care about the hospice. “Everyone knows someone who was there,” says Michelle Fairley, walking with two colleagues from her office. “I know a lot of patients there myself,” says Sally Husbands, who works in a private clinic. “And because it’s local, I know where the money is going.”

For some the commitment is even more intense. Among those I meet is Jayne Gill: “My husband died in Willen Hospice six years ago. We’d been together 18 years but we got married in the hospice the week before he died. I’ve done a tandem skydive, I do a three-mile run every year. It’s raising funds that keeps me going.”

Here, then, is the Big Society, without any need of a prime minister to articulate it. And it exists in a form barely known in the much bigger society across the Atlantic. In the US, the actor Edward Norton has just started an impressive-looking website called Crowdrise, which mixes social networking and giving – and a sort of sporting competition, since it offers points for the money you raise.

There are a number of unexpected features about Crowdrise, starting with its pleasing off-hand, cool style (the slogan is: “If you don’t give back, no one will like you”), its slightly disorientating lack of focus and the fact that it seems to be necessary.

In international competition, Britain expects to lose. And in the charitable Olympics, the Americans are miles ahead. According to a survey of 12 countries by the UK Charities Aid Foundation, the US not merely wins, it laps the field: giving 1.67 per cent of its GDP to charity, more than twice as much as the UK (0.73 per cent), its nearest rival.

There seem to be three reasons for this, all of them enough to curb any incipient British triumphalism. First and foremost, there is the tradition of grand philanthropy. Joe Saxton of charity consultants NFP Synergy pinpoints the national differences: “If an American gives $10m, people say ‘How generous of you. How can we thank you enough?’ If that happened in Britain, they would say ‘What taxes is he trying to avoid? What honour is he after? And how come he’s got so much money in the first place?’”

“Giving is very much part of the culture in the US,” says Professor Cathy Pharoah of Cass Business School, “and it has quite a broad base, much of it tied in to religion. People give to their church and, through their church, to other good causes. There is quite a lot of local fundraising, but it’s less noticeable because of the huge sums that go in.” The tax system helps this process, because people can lop their donations off their own tax bill, which seems psychologically more effective than the British Gift Aid system where the charities get the benefit directly.

Third bottom of the CAF survey is Turkey (0.23 per cent), a position that may be artificially low because the national predisposition to give to beggars does not count. Germany (0.22), is second-last but would have a much higher rating had the compilers counted the state-collected but non-compulsory church tax. Last of all is France on 0.14 per cent, a figure for which there is no obvious caveat. (Former East Germany was actually below France on 0.12.)

France and Germany are both high-tax countries with less obvious inequalities than the US or, increasingly, Britain. There is also an assumption that the state will provide, which the Americans have never expected and the British are being told by the government, all over again, to forget.

Nonetheless, the cultural differences are stark. I can never recall seeing a charity box in a French shop or bar. And a London-based social responsibility manager for a multinational company told me of her experiences trying to suggest charity initiatives to a German colleague. “He was completely baffled. Finally, he said ‘Well, I suppose we could support the Red Cross.’”

In Britain, the danger is overkill. “Sometimes it gets way out of hand,” says John Bryant. “I know lots of people who run the London Marathon, so I can easily end up being asked to support 50 or 60. In a way that’s something I applaud, and I know running a marathon represents a commitment. But if someone says I’m running a mile for charity, I’m less inclined to give.”

And, with governmental support about to wither, Joe Saxton believes British charities have an urgent need of new initiatives. He is trying to promote an idea pioneered in Israel: a credit-card equivalent of small-change-in-the-box whereby cardholders would be asked to round up the cost of each item on their bill from, say £15.87 to £15.90. “It would be totally painless and raise huge amounts,” he says.

Still, the British should not be too hard on themselves. I have a look at the points table on the very US-orientated Crowdrise website. The leader, who is raising money for 26 different causes (I said it seemed unfocused) is Amanda Darby, from Bristol. That’s Bristol, England.

matthew.engel@ft.com

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