I’m sick of sponsoring you to suffer

If you want to run a marathon, run a marathon. If you want me to give to charity, just ask. But don’t conflate the two

27 July 2013

Within waving distance of blessed solid ground, Susan Taylor lost her bid to swim the Channel — and, with it, her life. She was 34 years old, brainy and beautiful, gifted and giving; it is, indeed, a peculiarly bitter irony that it was the giving that killed her. For years she had been an avid fundraiser, facing all manner of challenges in charitable effort, and for this, her final swim, she even gave up her job as an accountant to train: admirable in intent, courageous in execution.

What I find less admirable, however, is the general acceptance that this kind of stunt is a reasonable and even a desirable way to raise money for good causes. These days, instead of each of us doing the decent thing for decent reasons, donations to charity are becoming no more than dues paid for the lurid spectacle of human discomfort, humiliation and pain. We might dress it up as generosity on our part, but when we pledge money to see, for instance, David Walliams battle serious illness to raise another weary arm to cover another filthy yard of the River Thames (and, mea culpa, I’m as guilty as any; I was glued to it), are we simply applauding a brave man for pushing himself to the limit for the good of others? Or are we sating a sadistic voyeurism of our own, like buying a hot ticket for the Colosseum to slaver over the guts of gladiators?

No longer may a charity depend upon the collection plate or the rattling tin outside Tesco; these days we cannot, apparently, be relied upon to help any of them unless it involves the absurd and morally dubious double whammy: ‘If he goes out and suffers, I will give money to alleviate the suffering of others.’ The disquieting corollary of which is, of course, that if he doesn’t — well, stuff the needy.

There has not been a London marathon in the past 20 years without chunks of my piggybank, though mercifully not my actual feet, pounding the agonising 26-plus miles, as broadcast commentators whip up the excitement with talk of ‘pushing through the pain barrier’ (for which read: ‘Wow, you’re really getting your money’s worth!’). Friends, who really do mean only the very best, regularly get in touch: ‘I’m running the marathon for Donkeys in Damascus — can I count on you to sponsor me?’

So I do, I do.


Just as I have agreed to sponsor cycle rides of unspeakable length and complexity and treks across terrain picked for no other reason whatsoever than its capacity to hurt.

And every time all I really want to say is, ‘Look, if you want money for a cause that matters to you — and if I happen to have a few bob at the time — then please, just ask.’

I am not against charitable enterprise; most of us, at some time, have probably done our bit, and there’s always plenty more to do. Hats off, I say, to the tin rattlers and to those who sacrifice their Saturday mornings sorting wheat from chaff in the stinky back rooms of charity shops. Nor am I against Great Endeavour. I might not care to engage in it myself, but intellectually, at least, I understand the principle of Man pitting himself against Nature; superhuman displays of fortitude in the pursuit of conquering the mighty.

But Captain Robert Scott did not drag himself to Antarctica for the RSPCA and Sir Edmund Hillary did not clamber up Everest to raise money for the church roof.

It is the modern, obligatory confluence of the two that niggles. Drooling over the pain of others does not demonstrate the best in us and it is unseemly enough even when all’s well and ends well. When, as with Susan Taylor, it does not end well, the cost in wasted life is shocking. And nor was her death an isolated incident.

Only a year ago another swimmer who attempted the Channel crossing also died barely a mile from France. The Great North Run has claimed as many as four lives in a single race. In the past eight weeks a 23-year-old man died two miles from the end of the Pittsburgh half marathon, an 18-year-old girl died halfway through her first full marathon in Toronto and a 16-year-old boy died in a charity cycle race in Seattle.

Deaths are rare, obviously, when measured against the numbers of fundraisers who participate. But they are an inevitable consequence of endeavours where the human body attempts that for which it is not designed, while the rest of us cough up to witness the torture for no loftier reason than the millions of fans of Japan’s infamous ‘endurance’ television shows. And when the worst does happen, the fallout reaches well beyond that of more commonplace loss and grief.

I wonder, for example, how Susan Taylor’s sponsors feel today. How many of them worry whether she might have stopped swimming precious minutes sooner had she not feared that to do so would have been to ‘let them down’? I wonder, too, how the recipients of her fundraising feel. If you were among those from her chosen charities who received the proceeds — Rainbows Hospice for Children in Loughborough and Diabetes UK — my guess is that you would hardly be laughing all the way to the bank.

None among them, of course, should beat themselves up; they are not to blame and I haven’t the slightest doubt that the indomitable Taylor would have been the first to insist that the choice to swim was hers and hers alone. Nevertheless, without our pervasive fondness for turning charity into thrills-for-spills — our thrills, someone else’s spills — it is perfectly possible that she would not have pushed herself to the limits of her own capacity. Let alone that lethal bit further.

Before she entered the water, Taylor had £13,000 backing her. Within two days of her death, another 2,000 people had donated more than £60,000; the next day an anonymous donor pledged £300,000, and widespread coverage of the funeral to come will undoubtedly have yet more people reaching for their wallets. Someone, somewhere, will benefit from every penny of it, so you could almost argue that Susan Taylor achieved what she set out to do. But the inescapable truth is that, to her charities at least, she was worth a lot more dead than alive: the greatest possible suffering earned the greatest financial reward. What can that mean to her parents, as they prepare to lay their child to rest? Cold comfort? Or no damned comfort at all?

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  • Daniel Cohen✡

    Sad thing is, it is the only way that works these days. When people try to raise money the fun way, people whine “why should I pay people for having a good time” and they barely raise a dime. I miss the old fun Comic Relief from the 80’s 90’s :-(

  • John Lea

    I’d pay good money not to have to look at Walliams on my TV. Period. In much the same way as I’d pay buskers to f*ck off.

  • grandpa1940

    Working as an Consultant Engineer some years back, I ‘shocked’ the whole office by stating, whern this bloke came by asking for ‘sponsors’ for some semi-marathon cycling thing he was intent on inflicting upon himself, by just asking if he would ‘pass me by’.

    I fail to understand the whole philosophy behind this ‘but its for charity’ routine, mainly because most of the so-called charities these days are simply not worthy of the term ‘Charity’. If you wish to giver your cash away, fair enough, but don’t expect everyone to support your choice, just because you are doing something which you enjoy anyhow.

    I used to give, on a regular basis, to the R.N.L.I., mainly because of my former involvement with the sea and the British Merchant Navy. I stopped my donations after reading of the hugely-inflated salary paid for a member of their so-called ‘Executive’ team.

    I fully support anyone giving to their own choice of charity, on either a regular or short-term basis, but the sooner these ‘sponsor lists’ are banned forever, the better!

    • La Fold

      I once “shocked” the office at the subsea engineering firm I was contracting for during a “personality workshop” by telling them this is how Nazi Germany started, it was like a Stalinist Purge and it was based on the ponderings of a coked up knobhead and his perverted sidekick.
      I soon left the comapny.

  • Abhay

    The tragic death of Susan Taylor was avoidable.

    This article was overdue. Everwhere you turn, be it your workplace or the tube station, someone is bent on being ridiculous for charity! And they want to shove it in your face too!

    The other stupid thing is ‘awareness raising’! Please stop.

  • http://www.angryharry.com/ Angry Harry

    My problem with charities – particularly those to do with “abuse” of some kind – is that they are forever distorting the problems, fiddling the statistics, and making everything sound 100 times worse than it is in order to generate hysteria and, hence, funding.

    I never give a cent to those that do this – because they poison our world and they purposely fuel fear and suspicion in people’s minds.

    • kevinlynch1005

      “My problem with charities – particularly those to do with “abuse” of some kind – is that they are forever distorting the problems, fiddling the statistics, and making everything sound 100 times worse than it is in order to generate hysteria”. Pretty much like most other businesses then…..

  • alabenn

    Charities are now scams, most are there to generate high salaries for the people running them.
    The smug useful fools that pester you night and day to donate money because they do pointless walks are drafting their children in to try to force people to pay up, using them as a guilt lever on your wallet.
    This woman who died attempting something she patently was incapable of doing, should be a warning to the other gullible fools who are feeding the extravagant habits of the executives of these so called charities.

    • mikewaller

      What a mean-minded lot! The number who die in relation to the number who take part is minute. What would you sooner folks did, sit on their butts and watch TV? Those currently active must find it impossible to please Specie contributors. On pages 12- 13 Melanie Phillips castigates them as having a disproportionate number of layabouts amongst their number then in this article Ms Sarler gives them a good kicking for metaphorically or literally getting on their bikes for charity. Poor sods can’t win!

      • alabenn

        What would you sooner folks did, sit on their butts and watch TV
        No but pointless running and all the other worthless activities they latch on to is a waste of effort and time.
        Charities are stuffed to the gunnels with cash, hence the overinflated wages of the staff.
        You have TV adverts from charities, just 2 pounds can save this child`s life, the magic potion is delivered by a outreach worker on upto a £100,000 in a £100,000 top of the range with bells on 4×4. a hundred thousand Tanseys could be saved if you believed their ads.
        That would be 99,999 lives more than they would normally save.
        It is a disgraceful sham.
        And that is before you get rubbish like the RSPCA spending hundreds of thousands on one case of political posturing about vermin like foxes.

        Did they need to hire some of the most expensive lawyers in the land to pursue an obvious case. no they wallow in cash and spend it like deranged shopaholics.

  • Archies_Boy

    Fascinating concept: *suffering for charity*. Now that it’s been written about in such clear and stark terms, I’ll never be able to view such events in the same way again. But they’re at least a notch or two above such activities as sky-diving, rock climbing, NASCAR racing, “conquering” mountain tops and arctic poles, wherein one deliberately puts his (or her) life at risk (with the distinct possibility of depriving a family of a loved one) for such stupid reasons as sport, fame, thrills or even money. In the activities subsumed under “suffering for charity,” at least a lot fewer people are actually putting their lives on the line on purpose. In most marathonic activities, one takes it for granted that he (or she) will come out alive at the end; battered, bruised and bleeding perhaps, but still *breathing*.

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