I have just written a cheque for £20, made out to the Theatre Royal Restoration Appeal. It seems a meagre amount for a fellow committee member who walked from Chatsworth to Stamford, a section of a 387-mile walk that raised £25,000. Worse still, I quietly ignored pleas to publicise this walk on this page because, frankly my dear, I hate sponsored walks. Ditto sponsored mountain climbs, Channel swims and cycle rides through Cuba, treks in China and South America. When letters begin ‘Turn a personal challenge into an opportunity to raise money for a cause close to my heart’, my teeth hurt, my skin itches, my eyes water. Even when my own beloved and intrepid sister-in-law Christabel walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats ALONE, aged 60 to raise money for Warwick University, I paid up only out of sisterly love and kept my mouth shut.
Where, oh where, is my tender heart, my sense of charity? In my family, I’m known as The Cat Who Gallops About Doing Good, so how come this churlish streak of meanness? Well, here is the nugget of my discontent: I feel warily like I am subsidising adventure holidays, even if they are holidays requiring courage and stamina.
In the past two decades, I have invested in the London Marathon, the New York Marathon, fun runs and mountain climbs, for causes as worthy as Alzheimer’s, AIDS, landmine clearance, arthritis research, crumbling churches and tigers. Now, at the risk of losing the interest on my investment, I’m coming out of the closet and confessing how exhausted and exasperated (as in fed up) I am.
The truth is, it’s time for a little revolution in fund-raising, a move away from this heroic Chariots of Fire approach. Instead of walking the Great Wall of China (especially when those long plane journeys damage the planet more than the fund-raising can ever benefit it), I’d much rather sponsor a team of walkers covering 50 miles in the Lake District/the A14/the Cornish coast picking up litter. I’ve loved investing in friends, all aged 50-plus, who spent a year practising until they became a fairly decent rock band with a great version of Yesterday, and now perform in nursing homes, hospices and old people’s homes. I actually get a kick out of any endeavour that goes beyond the intensely personal challenge of getting fit.
When my cousin launched a drive to collect books for libraries destroyed in Katrina, those who lived too far away to ship books sent money that fed the teams of college students that set up the libraries. Duplicate books were sold on the internet to pay for the purchase of new ones. She was inspired by a music teacher who collected and restored used musical instruments for schools hit by the tsunami.
Brilliant fund-raising ideas become dated as quickly as handbags. Posing naked for a calendar was clever and daring once. Now it’s time to button up and move on. Gala dinners with tickets starting at £150 (I have friends who pay NOT to go) seem as dated to me as long-stemmed red roses, although my own sister knocks herself out each year organising a themed ball for her local hospital, raising more than $100,000. And that is the other side to my rant.
I was in tears of admiration as I read Liz Astor’s book about her autistic daughter, Olivia. The money Liz raised climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (hundreds of thousands) has made diagnosis of autism easier and earlier, improving the lives of many children with autism. But I think (two marathons later) even Liz’s husband, Johnnie, is ready for her to take it easier. I hope she’ll go for a rock band I’ll sing back up to her lead singer any day.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 15, 2006.