Man walks into a column, no.19: Animals

Charitable giving is a familiar topic for this blog. At the end of last year, blogger-in-chief Rich posted about his (frankly incredible) decision to share his good fortune in receiving a tax rebate by donating a sizeable chunk of it – more than £600 – to a good cause.

Even if we’re not all capable of or disposed towards such noble acts, it’s difficult not to have the financial pressures facing society at the forefront of your mind when making choices about which charity or charities you choose to give to. All of which is a roundabout way of making a personal admission, for which I sincerely hope you’ll not judge me too harshly: amongst others, I give to charities that care for animals rather than humans.

I know I am not alone in this. The most recent publication in the joint Charities Aid Foundation/NCVO series UK Giving (download the PDF here) suggests that animal charities were the joint fifth most popular choice amongst donors surveyed, with organisations focusing on those lower down the evolutionary scale counting 14 per cent of us amongst their benefactors. You will not, I suspect, be surprised to learn that animal charities were more popular than those working with: disabled people, older people, and dealing with issues like homelessness and the environment.

Why is this the case? It’s hard to make a truly rational argument for giving to animal charities. Whilst laws to protect animals from harm are surely integral to civilisation (because cruelty full stop is bad and, when it becomes pervasive, tends not to discriminate), few people would, when faced with the – thankfully almost always hypothetical – ‘there in front of you’ choice of saving the life of a human and saving the life of an animal would choose the latter.

But, of course, we don’t go round making choices according to reason alone (or even at all). As one of the expert contributors to the UK Giving 2010 report notes:

A lot has been written about donor motivations, but ultimately more often than not, donors give to causes that are close to their heart, whether the decision is needs- or taste-based, self-fulfilling or completely altruistic.

Whether or not I should be embarrassed to admit it, my only reason for what I do in this case is how I feel. I am – as my Twitter followers will’ve noticed in the form of a recent penchant for Bill Oddie like nocturnal fox cub watching – a lover of animals. Not in a really crazy way (I eat meat, for instance) but, still, it’s where my heart is. I give to charities that support people as well, but I don’t think that, morally speaking, having a mixed portfolio really addresses the core issue: a pound spent with the RSPCA is a pound that could’ve been given to Shelter. As I say: rational judgement seems to have little place when it comes to giving (it’s different when, as with public spending, the decisions are political rather than personal).

What will the future hold, I wonder? Will we be more or less likely to prioritise human causes as the pennies in our back pocket become more precious? It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that whilst the NCVO/CAF data from the end of last year points to a recovery in overall levels of giving (following a slump in 2008/09), donations might dip again as inflation, pay freezes and benefit cuts hit real terms household income. With this as the wider context, our decisions become more acute: should head triumph over heart?

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