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Big is not always beautiful

I was invited onto BBC Five Live the other evening. The discussion was to be about the launch of a new RBS service. It is now possible to make a charitable donation at the same time as a cash withdrawal from their ATM machines. I was to speak in favour.

As it happened Harry Redknapp’s resignation was announced whilst I was on air and football suddenly became more important than philanthropy. I had 90 seconds to make my point before the emphasis shifted to what the editorial team clearly saw as a far bigger story. I guess if football was my life I’d agree but it’s not and therefore I don’t.

But I don’t want to rant about football, although I do see it as symptomatic of societal denial. At a time when social and economic meltdown appears unavoidable, it’s comforting to lose yourself in the politics of sport rather than the politics of ‘Big Society’. People are happier supporting their favourite team than the town they live in. But there, that’s reality.

Back to those ATMs. The idea is that now you can make a voluntary donation to one of a handful of charities whenever you draw out some cash. Perhaps give a tenner to the RSPCA when you grab some beer and bet money on your way to the dog races. Or maybe a fiver to Age UK will stop you feeling guilty about the fact you’ve not visited gran for almost a year.

Of course it’s unfair. ‘Big Society’ is about the collective impact of lots of small actions. Yes the RNIB do great work and it’s nice to have a new way to support them, but they’re a national charity. In my home city, as well I suspect as in yours, there’s a great local charity meeting the needs of the local visually impaired. How can I support them via my bank’s ATM? I can’t.

I don’t know about you, but I’d far rather support the small charities that make a difference in my neighbourhood than a big national organisation that may not. The small ones still have passion, determination and proximity, both to me and the need they strive to meet. To put it bluntly, I want to see my charitable giving invested in making a difference where I’m likely to see it.

Of course for government big is always beautiful. The same I suspect is true of the big banks. Both want to say they’ve enabled big sums to be given to big organisations to make big differences. The inconvenient truth however is that big charities have big overheads and big picture vision. They also have slick marketing teams, hire top agencies and run sophisticated campaigns to grab attention and increase their income. The little guys are simply not in the same fundraising league.

So what’s the answer? Well it is possible to use big national fundraising platforms to support small local charities. Marcelle Speller’s Local Giving does just that, working in partnership with the Community Foundation movement. So too does the Pennies Foundation, that enables online retailers to raise money for the cause of their choice from customers who opt to ‘round up’ their payment to make a small donation.

Surely the banks have the technology to make each ATM specific to a local cause? Or even give you, the customer, the choice? It’s not difficult once you recognise that big might be easy, but it’s not always beautiful!

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