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How to ask for help (with bells on)

17 November 2013

Last week the collection at my church was taken for the Royal British Legion, as it is every Remembrance Sunday. The charity helps servicemen and women and their families and this is its biggest fundraising opportunity of the year.

Our village also held its Christmas card sale last weekend, offering lunchtime soup and bread alongside the chance to make a vital contribution to charity (not to mention getting oneself organised, Christmas card-wise). Yet, as I set off to the village hall to buy my cards, I wondered why it is that I find making a direct charitable appeal so challenging.

I have never taken part in a sporting event for charity, or asked people to sponsor me. I have a horror of adding to that avalanche of emails that we all get from time to time, asking us to sponsor someone as they run, walk or cycle to raise money for charity.

My dislike of asking people to sponsor me extends to the Cost Centres. Whenever they took part in, say, sponsored walks at school, I used to fill in the sponsorship form myself and make one big donation rather than allow them to canvass friends and relatives. This reluctance even extends to the twice-yearly occasions when our village sells raffle tickets – for the fête, and for our annual cricket and beer festival. In both cases I take the raffle tickets allocated to us and buy them all myself.

I am sure that my hesitation is nothing to be proud of, and I am also sure that by depriving the Cost Centres of their chance to tout their sponsorship forms I have withheld some vital part of their life education. As CC#3 and I discussed his possible A-level subjects the other day, he said that he wished the past two years of school had been spent learning non-academic subjects. Like what? “Like how to run a house, do laundry, do a tax return, be a good citizen, all that kind of thing,” he said. “And how to give to others.”

I explained that his father and I were supposed to be the source of that kind of education, and then rapidly wondered if we have done enough of it. Perhaps I should get him to come and help out with my own charity, which I founded five years ago to help black and minority ethnic graduates in the UK find their first job. (This is an appropriate moment to record my gratitude to the FT readers who offered support when I overcame my reluctance to ask for help and sent out an SOS via this column when my charity’s office lease was about to expire. I am delighted to say that, as a result of your responses, the charity now has new and very affordable offices, courtesy of an organisation that no longer needs them.)

But back to that avalanche of sponsorship emails. How does one decide to whom one should say yes? I feel awkward saying no (or ignoring the email). One of my clients recently ran a half marathon in London in aid of Operation Smile and sent out an email that I thought was rather nifty – he made a monetary request. Instead of an unspecified “please will you sponsor me” he said, “I’m only asking for a tenner. I know you’ll be inundated with such requests but if you can spare £10, here’s how you can do it.” All you had to do was send a text. This was so much easier than going to a web page to donate – with hardly any effort and relatively little money involved, it was a winner as far as I was concerned. In his thank-you email to sponsors, my client said that not only was he not outstripped by any of the several competitors dressed as root vegetables, he also managed to raise about £1,700 – not bad for someone asking for £10.

Our village is currently raising money to restore our church bells; we have five, although we’d like a sixth. The oldest two bells were made in the 14th and 16th centuries respectively and need retuning.

Unsurprisingly, a big fundraising drive is under way. My Christmas cards this year all carry photos of bells, at 40p each – an easy way to support this. And it didn’t make me uncomfortable at all.

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