Ice Bucket Challenges and St Augustine

Ice bucket challenges have raised awareness of, and funds for, an illness that comparatively few people know much about, but I have to admit they leave me cold (no pun intended). I think that is because I believe one should help others whenever one can with ‘time, treasure or talent’, as the case may be. I don’t see why one shouldn’t have fun into the bargain, but wasting fresh water and energy to make ice does strike me as a little daft. St Augustine, whose feast we keep today, had some wise things to say about being charitable. For example,

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

or this

Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.

If, like me, you are averse to the notion of having icy water poured over your head, you could take to heart these two sentences of St Augustine and give as much as you can to as many as you can, starting with the needy around you. It isn’t always a material need that has to be met, but a spiritual, intellectual or emotional one. Scope for all!

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Something the Chancellor Forgot?

Unlike many in Britain today, I have no strong feelings about the Budget. That doesn’t mean I am indifferent — far from it — but when I look at the situation in Greece or Portugal, or even nearer home in Ireland, I think we are comparatively lucky. However, taking both the Budget and recent decisions to change the nature of the NHS and other familiar elements of our welfare system into account, I can’t help noting that there is one glaring anomaly.

There was nothing I could see in yesterday’s budget to help or encourage the voluntary sector. No matter how successful business in Britain may be, no matter how much surplus wealth may (eventually) be created, the voluntary sector (charity to you and me), can never plug all the gaps in our state welfare system. Indeed, major donors will not be getting the tax relief they have in the past for substantial donations to charity unless they have super-sized incomes (if you give £2M to charity, you now need to be earning £8M, or have I done my sums wrong?). There may be a vague hope that the strong impulse towards charitable giving among Jews and Christians, for example, will help make up for that lack, but with the constant nibbling away at organized religion and the demonstrable falling away in giving across all sectors of society, one may question that.

As one who is very conscious of the needs of some of the most forgotten people in society, the elderly blind and visually impaired among them, I suppose I am entitled to a gloomy view. It won’t stop us doing all we can, but there comes a point where we can do no more. Many charities this morning are probably wondering which services they will need to cut during the coming year. Maybe our Lenten alsmgiving needs to be a whole-year programme? What do you think?

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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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