By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
The massive amount of cash contributed by ordinary people to the tsunami appeal is unprecedented. Does this herald a new era of altruism? And how much should one give?
The desire to donate - but will we keep on giving?
The tales of stubborn goodwill are overshadowed only by the pitiful stories of those on the receiving end of this generosity.
The elderly Welsh woman who withdrew her £120 weekly pension, before giving £100 to the disaster appeal; the prisoners in Kent who gave up smoking for the New Year if their governor would make a donation; the American donor who called up to offer the money he had been saving towards a new hearing aid.
At the other end of the scale, the rich and famous have been reaching for their chequebooks too. Actress Sandra Bullock has given $1m while Michael Schumacher has multiplied that sum by 10.
Appeals for cash are everywhere and the British public have surpassed expectations, donating £100m in less than a fortnight. The final sum is set to far outstrip the Live Aid appeal of the mid-1980s when £80m was raised over 12 months.
All of which has set the charity sector abuzz with questions and speculation about the future.
- What's stimulated the British public into such generous action?
- Could this remarkable grassroots response signal a step change in charitable donations?
- Could this, in turn, augur an end to world poverty?
- Or is this merely a blip? When the story tails off in the media, will our interest and generosity wane?
Talk of alleviating world poverty on the back of the tsunami appeal, at least, is seen as a prediction too far.
"While it's relatively easy for most of us to give £50," Greenpeace's executive director Stephen Tindale told the Independent this week, "it would be much harder for us to make the changes in our modern lifestyles that are needed if we are to move to a fairer world."
But Cathy Pharoah of the Charities Aid Foundation is waiting to see whether people's willingness to donate to the tsunami appeal, and public pressure on Western governments to make big contributions, suggests a minor breakthrough in charitable giving trends.
Currently, individual donations to charity total £7.1bn a year in the UK - that's about £148 per adult. A report last year found two in five of us could afford to give an extra £20 a week, but we just aren't minded to.
Massive appeals in the past, such as the Live Aid appeal for Ethiopia, have failed to make a long-term impact on our giving habits. It was similar with the 9/11 appeal in America, which raised $2bn from the public. Year-end figures revealed overall donations in the US did not rise significantly, says Ms Pharoah. Instead people simply diverted cash earmarked for one charity to the 11 September families.
"The message from the past is things tend to settle down," she says. But that's not necessarily the case this time, says Ms Pharoah, who feels the overwhelming public response to the tsunami has "been waiting to happen".
"Over the past 20 years giving to international charities has outstripped that of other causes such as cancer charities, domestic children's charities, animal welfare etc."
Austere time of year
A number of other issues about the tsunami appeal tempt her to ask whether we have elevated ourselves on to a new platform of generosity.
The high profile of the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation which acts for several large charities, has "been very good in showing that aid agencies work together", she says.
Medecins Sans Frontieres has called a halt to donations - it wants money for other causes
The internet too has smoothed the way, allowing people to donate quickly and efficiently, and many who can afford to give have holidayed in the blighted areas.
"Much of it," says Ms Pharoah, "is a middle-class playground."
Such largesse from the public coming immediately after Christmas, traditionally a time of belt-tightening in many households, is also encouraging.
But if the tsunami really has instilled a new spirit of philanthropy, how much is enough?
One percent of annual income. That's the suggested amount we should give to charity every year, according to the Giving Campaign, a group set up by the government and voluntary sector in 2001. This would be almost double the 0.6% average, leading to an extra £11bn a year.
How much is enough?
However, the Church of England recommends a more hefty "tithe" of 5% of one's income. Other religions have different markers - Muslims, for example, are expected to pay a "zakat" of 2.5% on income.
Those in the charity sector are less willing to issue a definite figure. Jai Mukherjee whose company New Philanthropy Capital advises individuals donating to good causes, says there is no rule.
"It all depends on individual circumstances," says Mr Mukherjee. "All you can do is think 'what can I afford' not just as a one-off, but on a sustained basis. "
At the other end of the scale, some don't believe at all in donating to charity.
But if the tsunami is to lead to more sustained giving to charity, Cathy Pharoah says the aid agencies must first show how they have used the public's hard-earned cash.