Hearing But Not Listening: Why Charities Fail

Thursday, 01 July 2004 13:14

From The Right Use of Money edited by David Darton, The Policy Press, University of Bristol and Friends Provident Foundation, 2004

(Also mentioned in blog published on 13 July 2011)

Vast sums of donors' money have been wasted because the donors did not take the time and trouble to understand how the people they wanted to help saw themselves and their world. Gaining such an understanding usually threatens the donors' world view, and so they prefer to believe that they know best. We often see the same thing happen in our personal lives.

I was ill recently, nothing life-threatening but it was quite debilitating with intermittent bouts of severe pain. Two friends, separately, chose to help me. Without asking me, the first friend decided what it was that I needed. I found myself side-lined and, from the way she was treating me, I feared that my friend thought that I had become senile. Meanwhile she created havoc around me. Finally she departed, and I was left to pick up the pieces. The following week, still ill, I went to visit the other friend. She listened carefully to my account of my illness and she observed me closely. She learned very quickly to see the change in my expression that indicated that the pain was returning. Then, without fuss, comment or advice, she made everything simple and comfortable for me. We lived quietly, talking when I wanted to talk, being quiet when I wanted to be quiet. When I expressed an interest in having some soup she unobtrusively prepared a bowl of soup that was nourishing and comforting. She laughingly assured me that making soup was a selfish act because there was nothing she enjoyed more than cooking for other people. I left her home feeling comforted and physically much better.

The difference between my first and second friend lay in the way each of them had interpreted the situation. My first friend believed that she knew more about me than I knew about myself and that in helping me, she was showing herself to be both competent and virtuous. My second friend believed that she had to learn from me what it was that I needed.

My experience of these two kinds of help were, in microcosm, the experience of millions of people who, having been seen by charitable institutions as being needy, were on the receiving end of 'help'. The fortunate ones were those who encountered charities who operated like my second friend. Their way of working was first to get to understand the people they proposed to support. They lived with them, learning their language and coming to understand how they saw themselves and their world. They observed these people's way of life closely and saw how what they could offer would fit into the pattern of their lives. They made no decisions until they had discussed the matter thoroughly with the people themselves. Help was a joint enterprise, not the act of one group of people doing good to another group.

The unfortunate objects of charitable 'help' were those people who encountered charity organisers who believed that they knew what was best for other people. Such organisers wasted no time learning about the people they were proposing to spend money on, people whom they saw as ignorant, primitive savages or the passive victims of some oppressive religion or political regime or natural disaster. So puffed up were the organisers with their pride in themselves, they failed to realise that what they were doing was, at best, useless and, at worst, destructive.

I have been observing the functions of charities, either government organisations or private charities, since the end of the Second World War when European governments withdrew, one by one, from the African states that they had dominated for a hundred years or more. There were grand ceremonies and self-congratulatory statements about the vast sums of money government and businesses were giving to the new African leaders, supposedly to create democratic structures that would benefit their people. Such gifts were based on a failure of observation, the tragic consequences of which are still with us today.

The new African states were based on the artificial divisions of the continent created by European governments in their greedy, ruthless scramble for a share of the land and its wealth. European leaders took no account of what Africans themselves saw as the appropriate borders between different groups, and they ignored or used for their own benefit long-standing enmities between different tribes. Moreover, they failed to observe that the basic economy of Africa rested on African women. Relatively few African men were involved in trade although considerably more were employed as cheap labour for European-owned industries, but it was the women who tilled the soil and sold the produce while caring for their families. Most African men meanwhile were engaged in the important activities of gossiping, singing and dancing, sex, sport, jockeying for power, and fighting among themselves. Finding themselves in possession of vast sums of money the leaders of such men squandered it on corruption and lavish spending on themselves and on the weapons of war. The arms trade conducted by the Western governments, particularly by Britain, the US and Russia, was soon flourishing, as were the increasingly bitter conflicts in Africa. Meanwhile, the women worked harder and grew poorer as their economy was disrupted and destroyed, and they lost their land.

The tragedy of Africa is perhaps the most spectacular example of the failures of charitable enterprises, but it was not the only tragedy. In other parts of the world, people have suffered enormously from the 'gift' of a hydroelectric scheme which resulted in millions of people losing their land, or a 'gift' of a state-of-the-art hospital which was too high-tech to treat the diseases indigenous to that locality.

However, it is not surprising that most people, and not merely those who would claim to do good, are reluctant to undertake the onerous and often destabilising course of trying to understand how other people see themselves and the world. We like to tell ourselves that all sensible people see the world as we do, and that anyone who does not share our views is either mad or bad, but once we start to investigate other people's views we soon discover that no one else sees the world exactly as we do. This is inevitable, because the way we are constructed physiologically means that such differences in viewpoint are inevitable.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictatus once remarked, "It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things". Neuroscientists who study how the brain works have now shown that we are incapable of seeing 'things in themselves'. All we can know are 'our opinions of things'. We each create our own individual picture of ourselves as well as the world we live in. This picture comes out of our past experience and, since no two people ever have the same experience, no two people ever see any event in exactly the same way. Epictatus can now be re-stated as, "What determines our behaviour isn't what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us". Thus, in trying to be charitable we might think we are helping another person but, if the person being helped does not perceive what we do as help, then it is not help.

Before we set out to offer aid to anyone we need to determine how that person sees their own situation. We should also ask ourselves why we want to offer this help. Companies who engage in sponsorship are very clear about whom and what they sponsor. The sponsorship is aimed at appealing to a well-defined group of customers and at enhancing the reputation of the company and its products. In our charitable enterprises, whether we work individually or as a group, we need to be aware of why we do what we do. As part of this we need to consider what money means to us.

Charitable enterprises usually involve money. Money is not an inert substance, in its various forms, we pass around for the convenience of trade. Money is a set of ideas, or rather two sets of ideas, one set which we share with other people and one which is our own private set of ideas. We use our shared ideas to agree, say, that this piece of paper is worth ten pounds and those figures on a computer screen mean that X number of euros can be exchanged for Y number of dollars. Important though these shared ideas may be, the individual, private ideas we have about money are even more important to us; indeed, they form a significant part of our sense of identity (Freeman, 2000).

We try to use our money to enhance how we see ourselves and to influence favourably how other people see us. Even if we believe that it is virtuous not to be interested in money, the fact that we try not to think about money makes our idea of money an important part of our identity. If we like to think of ourselves as being generous, we can assure ourselves that we are generous by giving money to charity. If we want other people to see us as being generous, we try to make sure that people know about it. Our private ideas about money can change over our lifetime. One person, born to feckless parents, may resolve to devote his life to making money in order to feel safe. However, when he reaches a point in his life where he realises that he cannot live long enough to spend his wealth, he may alter his priorities and decide that he now wants history to record his existence not as a very successful entrepreneur but as a great public benefactor.

No individual or company is so wealthy as to be able to support every good cause, and in fact no one ever tries to. We select which charities we shall support according to our assessment of ourselves and of our world. Such assessments are often based on very little knowledge. It is much easier to raise money for charities for blind people than for deaf people because people who are neither blind nor deaf often sentimentalise blind people but find deaf people strange and difficult. Similarly, more money goes to charities that promote physical health rather than mental health. We can all imagine how horrible it would be to have cancer or heart disease, but, as I have learned from my work with depressed people, there are many non-depressed people who believe that depression is catching just as the SARS virus is catching. They feel that just giving money to a mental health charity could put them in peril.

Many people support and even may set up a charity which relates to some traumatic experience of their own. Such a charity may meet a currently unmet need in the community, but there is always the danger that the people involved in the charity are so close to the particular need that they cannot assess impartially alternative interpretations of the problem and its cure. Most of the fierce controversies that rage within a charity are about value judgements to do with money and with our need to be virtuous. No one ever dares to say out loud that what he or she is fighting over is the high moral ground to which they lay claim. Rather, many people who strive to be good lie to themselves about what they are actually doing. They tell themselves that they are behaving altruistically, that they have no personal motive for doing good. As children they have been taught that this is what they ought to do. They have never realised that total altruism is an ideal that no one can ever reach. We can choose to be unselfish as against choosing to be selfish, but in making that choice we meet our prime need of being able to think well of ourselves and have other people think well of us. We have to try to meet this need because life is intolerable if we cannot think reasonably well of ourselves and have satisfactory relationships with at least a few people who hold us in high regard.

Understanding that altruism is impossible allows us to move from blind selfishness to what Bertrand Russell called 'enlightened self-interest', which is the ability to order our priorities according to what in the long term will matter most to us. We might come to see improving the quality of other people's lives as actually improving the quality of our own. The world becomes a better place for us to live. Thus it is in our own interest to make the effort to understand how those we would help see themselves, the world they live in and the help we can offer. Only then can we be sure that what we offer actually is help.


Freeman,WJ. (2000) How brains make up their minds, London: Orion Books Ltd.

Rowe, D. (1998) The real meaning of money, London: HarperCollins.