Fatigued by Charity?
There's a piece of received wisdom which seeks to explain why people choose not to give to charity. In fact it's more than a piece of wisdom, it's a marketing syndrome, called, 'charity fatigue'. If you've not already heard of it, you will at some time have experienced it. It's the feeling you get when you open your inbox and find that Tina in Accounts is dressing up as a banana for a 'fun run' and would like you to sponsor her (again!) Or, the feeling you get when you come out of a tube station and a bloke with dreadlocks, a red nylon vest and a clipboard tries to engage you in a conversations about starving kids in Africa - on your way to a big lunch. The guilt almost gets to you, but why should you let it? Invariably you apologise and march straight ahead.
The causes seem worthwhile but endless. The channels to reach you, digitally and socially perpetual. The messaging is more and more ingenious. It gets to the point where hearts harden and the appeal no longer resonates. We're blunted by care. Numb to the need to help and we start to rationalise reasons why we don't: "they get plenty of money anyway", "the people who do these daft endurance things are only doing it for themselves", "these charities waste the money - it never gets to the hospitals/kids/animals/scientists anyway".
I have always given to charity - in a small way - and yet I have seen and felt all of the above at one time or another. Call it 'conflicted giving syndrome'! That is, I give but I am not convinced I should, nor am I convinced that it makes a difference. Clearly, it was time I had a fully immersive charity experience, so that, one way or another, I could resolve my inner demons!
This manifested itself when I participated in stage 4 of the Dellaglio Flintoff 2012 Cycle Slam, an epic bicycle ride from Mount Olympus to Olympia in London to raise over £2m for cancer and rehabilitation charities and Virgin Unite. My stage involved riding across Switzerland (yes, via the Alps) to Epinal in France. Four days, 500km and 5,000 meters of ascent. A cake-walk if your name is Lance Armstrong but not so easy if you are a middle-aged desk-monkey who bought his first road bike 12 months ago and still isn't sure what a group-set is (apparently something to do with cogs and gearing and stuff).
So, Day One starts in St Moritz. Good news, we're starting high-up, how much higher can you go from here? Answer: lots. Ok, so you can climb up from there but obviously you can't do it very fast, can you? Answer: if your ride captains are former professional footballers, Lee Dixon and Graham Lesaux, yes, you can go very fast uphill as well as down. In fact, you'd better keep up with them or you'll be spending the rest of the day in Switzerland, like Heidi, with only a goat-herd for company. Fortunately, I keep up until the second climb of the day which catches all of us out, the profile looks less steep than the first mountain but it hurts more and splinters our group leaving us to find our own way to Chur. We arrive hot, bothered and a bit surprised that a ride of only 78km can be so tough. As they say in Australia, we better HTFU - harden the fuck up - pretty quickly; there is much worse to come.
Chur to Horgen is much longer, 138k with 1430 meters of ascent but it is a stunning day. Unseasonably hot at 37 degrees in the mid-afternoon sun, at which point there is a 700 meter climb! I can honestly say I have never suffered as much in my life. I have done a lot of physical and sometimes dangerous things, I have been uncomfortable and challenged - I would even say I thrive on such conditions, but that afternoon the heat got to me and I turned the peddles out of duty to my sponsors and with real meaning, rather than any sense of pleasure. My reward was an exhilarating descent where I reached a maximum speed of 91kmph. 4 of us completed the final 30k run together through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Many riders described this as their best ever day on a bike and I count myself amongst them. The sense of achievement was immense and I enjoyed a few guilt-free beers that evening, sitting by lake Zurich amongst a tight knit group, most of whom had been strangers to each other just 48 hrs earlier. Only we knew what we'd been through and why.
Horgen to Basel, billed as an easier day, 107km and 933m of ascent. And it would have been easier, save for the weather. At mid-day the temperature was 23 degrees cooler than the previous day (freaky) but that wasn't the issue. The rain was. It rained from the moment we got up until about an hour from the end, and, when you get wet on a bike, you get cold. If you stop to rest you get even colder. It should have been a crap day but it wasn't. It was a day in which the ride captains knew we had to work together as a team. We waited for the stragglers, we got into formation and aside from the hills where it was difficult to stick together, we thundered along at 35k through tunnels and villages on the least scenic part of the journey so far, just trying to get the job done in the quickest possible time so that we could get in the warm and get dry. Tired as I was, I smiled to myself as we kept formation through driving rain. Frank Hoj and Jeremy Roy, our two tame professional cyclists led from the front, Lee and Graham tucked-in behind them and kept looking back to see that none of their sheep had left the flock. Sadly, as we entered Basle one of our number, Herby, lost concentration and took a tumble in the tram-lines. A CT scan later confirmed he was OK and he was able to ride the next day, but it was a close thing and could have happened to any of us after such a draining journey.
Basel to Epinal, the longest day, 160km and 1171m of ascent. Myself and three others changed groups for the final day so that we could ride with a great friend, Peter Nagle. Peter, with this event in mind, was responsible for getting me on to a road bike 15 months ago so it would have seemed strange not to have spent a day in the saddle with him. And what a day! The conditions were perfect, a little cool in the morning but not too hot in the afternoon and although we battled into the wind for three hrs in the morning it did nothing to dim our enjoyment, nor did it take everything out of our legs. After being in a very fast group all week, Peter's group, christened 'The Individuals' (they were about as cohesive as the Dirty Dozen) took things at a more leisurely pace and had photo stops, pee breaks and even attempted a coffee stop. It was another world to me and my buddies but for the first time I really seemed to power up the big afternoon climb - in this case the Ballon d"Alsace the first climb of the Tour de France in 1905. In the afternoon, in the style to which we had become accustomed, we stepped up the pace, and, with Peter at its head, we created a peloton that powered past another team and into Epinal at 35km+, something that four days ago would have been unimaginable.
The day was topped off by a comical night at a hotel that made Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz Carlton. As if this were not enough Sir Richard and Mrs Branson flew in for a surprise visit (Virgin being the main sponsor) during which he threw a glass of spirits over his shoulder and into the eyes of a group of riders, all of whom were very forgiving and laughed it off. Then, we all piled into a local bar where, one of the other ride captains, Bonzo di Lorenzo (his real name but nicknamed Bronzo after three weeks riding in the sun) was trying to change channels on the TV when it fell off the wall! Working Title could have scripted this night; it was as English as tea and scones and as warm as an episode of Only Fools and Horses. As long as I live I will never forget the spirit in the tiny hotel kitchen where riders substituted for hotel staff and millionaires, mechanics and other support staff formed a human chain to get lamb casserole from oven to table before there was a riot. As one guy put it, at least Sir Richard will see we're not wasting his money!
So, after all of this, what do I think about charity fundraising?
Both in general and for this event in particular? Am I suffering from charity fatigue? After all, I saw it from the inside. The internal politics, the sexing-up that has to be done to attract sponsorship and media coverage, some riders more absorbed with the riding and the social aspects than the cause and the fundraising. My hands-on experience and difficulty of asking for and chasing people for money. The VIPs and sports celebrities, their personas and the way these are used to attract, and, extract money for their personal causes. I think I saw every aspect of this relatively close up.
I also saw successful people who don't need to prove anything to anyone giving all their time and energy to something from which they receive no financial benefit. I saw people from all walks of life bonding around a common goal. I saw people pushed beyond normal limits and coping with a smile on their face. I heard stories of why people are doing such things and it is normally because their lives have been touched in some way by sickness or tragedy. One of our number, Dougie, had recently been diagnosed with Cancer and had to have one of his arms amputated below the elbow. His bike had been adapted so he could break both wheels with one hand. Dougie cycled the same route as we all did and received a yellow jersey along with the respect of every other member of the 'Slam'.
My conclusions will therefore disappoint the cynics and the people who say we in the UK have an outbreak of charity fatigue. I don't think we are fatigued by charity I just think charities have to find increasingly innovative ways - like any other business has to - to engage with the public. Like it or not they have to be marketing savvy. As an example I was rather irked that Lawrence, Freddie and Graeme had to miss an afternoon of the ride to go white water rafting - it hardly seemed to be in the spirit of what we were doing. The explanation was that the Discovery channel, who are covering the ride for broadcast in July, felt that two, hour-long programmes about the ride would not be sufficiently entertaining and therefore organised some extra curricular adventures for the celeb's. Fair play, if it raises awareness of the cause and in turn raises more money then turning up the entertainment volume is legit. After all isn't this what everyone from politicians to big corporations are having to do to get people engaged in their message? Charities are no different.
What also struck me is that if anyone has a right to complain about being fatigued it is the celebrities who put their name to these things. Everyone wants a piece of them all the time - especially Lawrence and Freddie. In fact, Freddie looked down and beaten most of the week and some of the riders were worried for him. I think they expected a larger than life figure but equally we'd all seen him talk on TV about his struggle with depression and feared for the worst. All was explained on the last night when he made a speech during which he apologised and confessed "I fucking hate cycling!" What caused his change of mood was seeing us all suffer, on the very, very wet day. We were suffering the cycling, like he suffers it every day. He's not built for it, he's not trained for it and he doesn't like it. He's doing it for a purpose and as he put it the more we suffer for just a few hours on a bike ride the closer we feel to the people we are helping, who suffer everyday. That may sound corny to someone reading this, if it does then the chances are you've never done what we all did.
Finally, I have to mention Lawrence Dellaglio. I don't follow rugby (nor for that matter, football or cricket!) so whilst I knew who he was when I signed up for this, he was no hero of mine, just a famous name. He is now definitely a hero, not for what he did on the pitch but for what he has done since, in creating and leading the Cycle Slam. Throughout my stage of the cycle tour I saw him exercise natural leadership, setting a warm tone, challenging selfish behaviour with humour, supporting good teamwork, guiding and cajoling from breakfast at 6am until his dinner time speech, every night of the week for 26 days. (As someone in my group said, can you imagine making a best man's speech every night for 26 nights - never mind the 3,000km of cycling?). I was not the only one to recognise these qualities and when he was given the yellow jersey by his own team captain all 100 of us rose to our feet. He gracefully accepted it whilst looking at the floor in painful embarrassment. You get the sense that the gift and fame he has is as much a burden as a blessing. Just because famous people can make things happen we should never assume it is easy for them to do so.
So, all in all, a lot of fun but also a truly life affirming and immersive learning experience. Am I fatigued by it? Yes, from the waist down (my legs feel twice as heavy) but from the neck up, quite the reverse. I have seen, close-up, how every part of the charity value chain can win by participating and supporting such an event. From the person giving, to the charity receiving, there are literally hundreds of intermediaries - event organisers, medical staff, hotels, airlines, infrastructure partners, sponsors etc etc who are gainfully employed and contribute towards making a difference to a worthy cause.
It's been said that "life just gives you time and space - it's up to you how to fill it". I can see few better ways to fill it than supporting events such as the Dellaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam and helping them reach their £2,012,000 target.
And, if, after hearing my story you're still suffering from charity fatigue, I have the perfect antidote........get on yer bike!