A tiny dog arrived in my house several weeks ago. He almost broke my heart. The little dog was called Ben and the moment I saw him, I knew that the forces of darkness, aka marketing experts, had almost certainly arrived at the door of one of my favourite and great charities, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.

Ben is a toy, about 10cms high, and he is supposed to represent a real guide dog called Ben. I’m not sure what the ostensible reason for him is. Perhaps donors need reminding of what a dog looks like?

No, the real reason for Ben’s arrival is that he is designed to guilt me into giving more to the charity.

He’s too cute to throw away and I’m too busy – and too annoyed – to send him back.

Instead, he lurks on a kitchen bench, his little red felt tongue poking out cheerfully. A chain around his neck carries a heart-shaped dog-tag that says coyly, “Thank you”.

Oh please, please Guide Dogs, don’t do this to me again. How much did this exercise cost you? Of course I will be donating to you, but I can only afford what I gave last year and now I know some of that money has been used on Ben the pup.

At Christmas, some charities now send cards that have never been ordered. Another guilt trip. Through the year, I regularly get supplies of stickers for envelopes with my name and address thoughtfully inscribed.

Oh please stop.

Nor do I ever want to see another survey from a welfare charity asking me how I prefer to see my money spent. (You’re the ones running the charity … don’t you know where the money is most needed?) As for the international animal welfare group that once asked me, a regular donor,  which animals I most wanted saved …

Charities do wonderful, necessary work and I am endlessly grateful to them and to the volunteers and staffers who work for them. Still, I can’t help feeling that, as the numbers of charities mushroom, and as many become as big as multinational corporations – and as susceptible to whizz-bang business practices, mantras and other idiocies – that the whole charity machine is like a sausage: you just don’t want to look too closely.

And yet, if we’re going to donate, isn’t that our responsibility? If we are to give, surely we need to make sure that our money is going to be used wisely and well? Otherwise, donations are just a pay-off to our consciences and never mind the people and creatures who actually need help.

Last Thursday, over a thousand business leaders around the country, including the Commonwealth Bank’s Ralph Norris and News Limited’s John Hartigan slept rough in the St Vincent de Paul CEO Sleepout. They not only raised awareness of the plight of the 16,000 Australians who sleep without shelter every night, they have raised over $4 million and the pledges are still coming in.

How fantastic.

A few years ago though, I eliminated that same charity from my will after its NSW branch closed down a welfare complex in my neighbourhood. The place had been providing food, shelter and support for years to both the homeless and the temporarily desperate, families as well as singles, and many good people and volunteers worked there. The charity’s NSW head office could never properly explain, at least to my satisfaction and several of my neighbours’, the reason for the decision or how the complex’s services would be duplicated. To this day, the huge building remains closed-up and unused. A real estate sign promises it is a “rare boutique development site”.

Pity about all the people who once depended on it.

I also see that twice since 2009, Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr has written pieces about St Vincent de Paul in NSW, covering its internal warring and allegations of bullying and poor treatment of staff.

Maybe Vinnies is being unfairly singled out for it surely does much sterling work and who knows what goes on elsewhere. What’s at issue is what is really going on inside our charities.

Recently, I got myself entangled in an unpleasant row between two rival charity groups. They’re both small and they both serve a vulnerable bit of the community. It seemed to me that each group was doing good but tensions were so high between the two – and the accusations so bitter, with the threat of lawyers in the air – that I figured I’d never hear the end of it if I tried to write about them.

A friend has just finished a stint working for another charity known for valuable work in the indigenous community. She laments to me, “If only you could see how much money goes on lobbying or gets wasted.”

If you are inveigled into signing up as a regular donor by a street fundraiser, you should know that a lot of the time, a large percentage of your donation will, for many months, go, not to the charity but to the agency that hired the eager – usually young and winsome – fundraisers who conned you into donating in the first place.

It goes on.

In February, in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, Vern Hughes, the director of the Centre for Civil Society, attacked what was happening inside community organisations that used to depend on volunteers. He agued that the cult of managerialism has created monsters that prattle about “stake-holders”, “brand protection” and “risk management”.  He wrote, “Most organisations with a history of more than three decades are unrecognisable from the groups that formed in church halls and around kitchen tables in a previous era.”

Managerialism, he contends, “has trumped entrepreneurship in the private sector and perverted notions of service in the public sector. But in the non-profit sector, it has swept all before it.”

Letter-boxes around the country are filling up now with begging letters from charities as they all compete for the end of financial year flood of donations from taxpayers motivated by both good will and the desire for more tax deductible items. I have piles of letters and I bet you do too. What to do: a little to several or the biggest cheque you can afford to just a couple?

The latter is such a gamble given all the above.

Governments around the world now increasingly outsource welfare and social work to charities. Perhaps that’s the problem. Such a heavy load of new responsibility seems to be distorting the way charities function, making them vulnerable to all kinds of false business messiahs.

Money so often brings out the worst in people but money, essentially, is what charities are about.

Certainly one of the oddest things I’ve noticed over the years is that – apart from Rotary which has implored me to volunteer a few times – I have never been able to find a charity that wants my volunteering services. I know my police record is fine so what’s the problem? Inefficiency?

Or is it what happens after I write down my profession – journalist – on the application form?

My nose tells me there’s a good story in what is going on inside our charities. Experience tells me though that most of us are leery of doing anything that might harm fund-raising. Just as newspapers have for years had a policy of not reporting suicide (for fear of encouraging copycats) so I think the media avoids scrutinising charities in case it puts off donors.

Last year, former Labor MP Gary Johns wrote an empassioned piece for The Australian about the need for government regulation. In May, there was this announcement, by assistant treasurer Bill Shorten, which that yes, from July 2012, there will be an Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Guess what?

The federal government will spend $53.6 million over four years to set it up.

Oh please. How could it possibly cost that much! Shorten’s office says it’s because it’s a huge job; the new agency will have to first find and then deal with 170 pieces of legislation over many jurisdictions.

Still, all those taxpayer millions … It’s enough to put you off donating.

And that is definitely not the point of this post. We have to give. It’s what humans do for each other and for other creatures in need.

My conscience – and commonsense – already tell me that giving is not enough. Maybe local is the way to go. Certainly, I have to work harder at making sure that when I donate, the money actually helps someone or something other than the people who keep the wheels rolling.

Would that all charity administrations felt as strongly.


I am getting very tired of being told this hard, cold winter, how rich I am – courtesy of the mining boom – and how I have never been more cosseted. Meanwhile, business leaders, economists and business journalists are skipping between the terms “two-speed economy”, “multi-speed economy” and “patchwork economy” like skittish bachelors at a speed-dating convention.

Currently, they all seem to be plumping for “patchwork economy”. It’s such a cosy, warm, comforting term, isn’t it, given what it really signifies – the widening, chilly gap between those snuggling along and doing well or even super, super well, and those who are trying to escape hypothermia.

All too often, their figures don’t take into account part-time workers, freelance workers, casual workers, contract workers and so forth, whose part in the Australian workforce grows with every year.

I have a suggestion. From now on, whenever a commentator writes a piece that tells me I am a whinger or whenever a business leader tells me how good the economy is, or indeed, whenever, there’s a rant-comment on an internet site snarling about how lucky we all are, I think their annual income should be included in brackets after their name.

As in:

Have you been struggling to cope with the rapidly rising cost of living? Well, tell it to the pollies because I don”t believe it …” (The Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins, $XXX,XXX)

The young families ‘doing it tough’ today were partying hard a decade ago – no wonder many whinge about life being harder now … As individuals, we’re pretty hapless at measuring our current wealth, health and happiness.” (finance commentator Michael Pascoe, $XXX,XXX.)

“… the reality is that incomes continue to grow at a faster pace than prices.” CommSec chief economist Craig James, $XXX,XXX.)

You get the drift. It would make it all so much easier to understand, yes?


Here’s an embarrassment that may soon be visited on you too as you file your tax return and maybe get a refund. Last week, I went to bank two refund cheques the Australian Taxation Office had sent me. The teller at the Haymarket branch of my bank laughed noisily. “This is a photocopy!” he said, holding up one of the Reserve Bank cheques. (The one for the larger sum as sod’s law would have it.)


I went into a huddle with my accountant. The ATO assured him the cheque was fine. There was an instruction about ultraviolet light. Bravely, I went to a larger branch of my bank where both the teller and her manager got to work with the UV light and then assured me – in front of a long line of interested customers – that no, I was trying to bank a scrap of white paper. No magic marks.

The ATO maintains nothing is wrong but is re-issuing my cheque. It will take 14 days.

I hope my accountant has framed the dodgy one.

My advice: cost-cutting at the ATO has clearly gotten way out of hand; make sure you opt for EFT.


What is it about digital technology, Gen Y and middle-aged men? Is an acquaintanceship with a smartphone and twenty-somethings who speak hip digital jargon just today’s equivalent of the Porsche and a blonde?

I’ve watched the fervour for digital amongst men of a certain age in the print media, as they pant for young, fresh, exotic, digital-dexterous audiences. Then I was exposed to Q and A’s Gen Y special edition last Monday night. Were you?

What was most notable, I thought, was the big beam on host Tony Jones’s face and his failure to ever seriously challenge his mostly gormless, mostly attractive young guests. They were happy to insist that gay marriage was what the Australian people wanted – look at the polls! But all except one was adamant that a carbon tax was absolutely necessary – never mind the polls!

Did Jones not notice the disjunct?

Barring the thoughtful and well-prepared young guy from the Institute of Public Affairs – set up as the right-wing stooge in true qanda form – the rest resembled a bunch of smug ideologues in the making. God save us.

Jones seemed to get off on it though.


Ah, it’s the end of the financial year, the middle of winter. Night starts at 5pm and hope seems lost. But it isn’t. Not if you watch this bridal waltz, it isn’t. Impossible to watch without grinning, and hard to work out who is happier and who got the best deal. Hope they’ve lasted.