How I learnt that charity begins at home

This is a guest post written by Caroline Walsh,  Honorary Research Associate in the Kent Centre for Philanthropy:

The question of how we decide what causes to support, and whether or not charity begins at home, came into acute focus last November. Two major fundraising appeals were launched in the same week – the first to raise money for the victims in the Philippines of Typhoon Haiyan and the second was the annual BBC Children In Need appeal, raising funds for young people in the UK.

The Director of our Centre for Philanthropy, Dr Beth Breeze, appeared on Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme to discuss the question of whether or not charity begins at home (listen again here) but the question hit me in a far more personal way that month.

Research published by the Centre of Philanthropy (published in a report called How Donors Choose Charities) shows that donors give to charities that reflect their own personal passions and experiences. I found myself profoundly mirroring these findings and reflecting on this when my grandmother died in November 2013. As a scuba diver my donations of time and money have always been closely linked to this hobby, as I give time and money to marine conservation and related charities. Being born disabled I also have a strong affinity to social justice and social equality organisations. One could note that, perhaps selfishly, my philanthropic patterns have always reflected what had happened to me and my own personal experiences. or so I thought until my grandmother died and we lost her after 3.5 long years of having dementia. Giving to a health related charity, and asking others to collectively do the same, was outside my normal pattern of philanthropic behaviour, because dementia hadn’t happened to me – or so I thought until I reflected upon this a bit deeper.

Dementia has a profound and overwhelming effect on both the individual and the family. Some well-intentioned kind souls would perhaps argue that rather than losing my grandmother in November, we actually lost my grandmother three and a half years ago when her dementia came to light in the acutest sense. Others, prior to gran’s demise, might argue that we lost her when (I have to add – with extreme guilt at being inadequate to care for her needs) we succumbed to “give up” gran to the care system – although we ‘stubbornly’ hung in there to be part of her life. It was for this reason rather than any other that we were determined after her death that, as a family, we would encourage our family and friends to donate to charity rather than have funeral flowers. I know my family are no means unique in this respect but I hadn’t quite understood the motivation behind such public and visible acts of philanthropy, especially as you are in a sense asking others to give up their own free choice of which charity to support. Imposing a philanthropic preference on others is something I had previously felt uncomfortable with and had shied away from. Mindful of this, and in our great need and desire to help other families who may be faced with the same heartache as we had suffered over the last few years, we chose a charity whose mission we best felt would support families in their time of crisis, Dementia UK.

I deeply regret not having the courage to contact charities such as Dementia UK at the beginning of our journey with grandma, and hope that our family’s collective philanthropic effort will help another family through those dark days.

Having always previously believed that my own philanthropic tendencies, particularly with regard to giving of time (i.e. volunteering), were solely based and shaped by my own experiences of life and the world around me, I no longer believe this to be the case. As a personal response to my grandmother’s death I withdrew into my favourite hobby of family history. I started to revisit my grandmother’s own personal and family history and to my amazement I found my philanthropic roots had been staring me in the face! Not only had my own parents done youth volunteering in their formative years, undertaking activities such as helping to renovate a local church shrine, running a youth club and leading a local cub group, but my own grandmother’s life had been dedicated to philanthropic activities from a very young age and had continued until quite recently. She started her lifelong commitment to volunteering in the Girls Brigade and subsequently used the first aid and organisational skills gained from her time at the Girls Brigade in her role as a community volunteer during the Second World War. Her passion and dedication to volunteering continued and was sustained into married life – she and my grandfather regularly undertook political volunteering. As a mother, she volunteered with the church, the local cubs and scouts, and helped out with school sports activities. Her tea and cake making skills were infamous at my uncle’s school cricket events, as were her ‘light’ lunches for the home team! As a grandmother, and in later life, her volunteering included helping to organise and run several community groups. Two such groups were the local ASBAH (now called SHINE) and Arthritis Care group, where her volunteer roles included acting as secretary, treasurer and chairperson.

Reflecting on my grandmother’s lifelong volunteering, I revisited the academic research I had previously explored on volunteering over the life course by Kent Centre for Philanthropy’s Dr Eddy Hogg. Using Eddy’s typology, my grandmother’s volunteering can be classed as ‘constant’. Her lifelong volunteering had changed in nature and in type but had been a constant in, and throughout her life. She started on the ‘frontline’ and over her life course had used her life experiences to move into more ‘managerial’ and organisational roles. Interestingly, her commitment to volunteering did not diminish post-retirement. In fact, after the death of my grandfather the number of hours she devoted in her 70s and 80s increased – until the onset of ill health. Even then her philanthropic activities did not diminish but became more strategic and took the form of giving of money instead of time.

So, what impact did the lifelong philanthropic activities of my grandmother have on me? I have learned that the socialisation I received from my family meant that giving time and money was a norm, something that people like me did. This simple fact, which research also shows is a prime driver of philanthropic behaviour – had been staring me in the face but I hadn’t seen it. My grandmother was a philanthropist – despite being an ordinary woman from a working class background who was first and foremost a mother and a homemaker. Like many in her generation and class she gave her time and money for the betterment of her community, those she perceived to be less well off and others in need of support.

For me, charity and philanthropy really did begin at home!

Leave a Reply