Having spent numerous afternoons sorting through donations in a charity shop as a child, I was always amazed by the things people would give ranging from high quality goods to pure junk.
Last summer I was sifting through items to be sent to refugees in Calais, France along with some other volunteers. Many useful things such as clothing, camping kit, practical shoes and non-perishable food were generously donated by the public but on the odd occasion I’d stumble across what can only be described as ludicrously impractical.
The collection had taken place in a relatively affluent part of London so good quality donations were to be expected. But designer Hugo Boss suits? Dinner dresses and stiletto heels? For refugees who have fled terror and war currently living in squalid conditions? Utterly unbelievable.
Perhaps if the clothing had been donated as part of a resettlement project, providing refugees with smart suits for job interviews for example, then this would make sense. But these items were stupidly inappropriate.
The donors were clearly having a spring clean and wanted to contribute their unwanted wares to a ‘worthy’ cause, but their ‘charitable’ deeds were completely misguided. And herein lies the problem; Rather than acting primarily out of a genuine desire to help those in need, they were spurred on by a range of questionable motives; namely to appease their conscience, ‘legitimise’ their affluence and ultimately, make themselves feel better.
This also extends the other way, to those individuals who donate absolute tat which belong in one place- the bin. Soiled trousers, torn tops and weather beaten, worn- out shoes; surely if it is not good enough for you, why should it be for someone else?
I truly believe this is what happens when we operate from wrong motives – a sort of disembodied faux compassion. When we fail to fully see people as they should be, as fellow human beings, to be afforded the same dignity we would expect in turn.
There are other circumstances where this could apply such as donating unwanted food to a local food bank. Let’s be honest, how many times have you been tempted to give those unwanted tins, lurking in the kitchen cupboard since time immemorial, to your local food bank? Surely somebody would want that unidentified tinned fruit / vegetables, random pulse or such like, which even you haven’t gotten round to eating despite those bare cupboard / broke days. In all honesty, we would sooner find something else to eat, so why do we insist on giving food that we ourselves would not want? (This piece sums it up perfectly – excuse the naughty language.)
Another related bug bear of mine, is the assumption homeless people will want things – food specifically- without considering their preferences. Its the equivalent of giving a homeless person who is vegetarian – due to deeply held personal beliefs – a ham sandwich and insisting they eat and be grateful. Just because they are homeless, we assume beggars shouldn’t be choosers. And although there is a modicum of truth entailed in this statement, (if you are desperately in need, you will pretty much take what you are given), irrespective of a person’s status – homeless, refugee, food bank user or someone whose simply fallen on hard times (which most of us have or will at some point) our response should be the same; We see the person, respond to their needs, respecting their being, preferences and desires, and where possible accommodate these accordingly.
May I hasten to add that I am not saying acquiesce to ridiculous requests; a Byron burger when perhaps you can only afford Burger King or a posh sandwich from Selfridges food hall when a similar sandwich from M&S or Tesco will suffice. (Disclaimer: If you can afford to and want to then absolutely respond with radical generosity. But I suspect most people who are in need would be content with a fairly standard version of the said item.)
Nor do I want discourage genuine acts of kindness – even if the outcome is slightly questionable! We may not always be in a position to give people what they want – whether it is due to time, finances or other constraints, but hopefully operating from a place of true compassion and common sense will minimise potential faux pas aka stilettos and Hugo Boss suits.