We’ve got charity fatigue — and we don’t care

RENDEZVIEW: How is that middle-class Australians have become a bunch of ungenerous moaners who think mainly of themselves rather than those less fortunate, asks Karen Brooks. Are we really so whingy and stingy?

On his last day as chief advocate of the charity, World Vision, Costello said "Middle-class people think they're doing it tough - the sense of victimhood is huge. We've got a whining middle-class culture."

He added. "We're blessed, we're the third richest county per capita in the world. When you lose that perspective, you lose that generosity."

Costello blames a "global ill-wind" for this "evaporation of empathy" and "compassion fatigue". Reckoning it turns us inward-looking, he explains we feel we don't have to be responsible for the world's problems when we have our own to deal with.

Are we really so whingy and stingy?

The daily news is filled with horrific stories and the burden of caring about everything becomes hard.

There are those who not only become inert when they learn of others' tribulations but, as Costello suggests, start to build emotional buffers between their lives, families, communities and these "needy" people and seek to justify (often irrationally) why they can't/don't care. For some middle-class people, this is because they're worried if they do feel, they'll be overwhelmed. For others in that economic bracket, they convince themselves they're hard done by as well; they too are victims.

World Vision's Tim Costello says Australians have lost their generosity. Picture: Supplied
World Vision's Tim Costello says Australians have lost their generosity. Picture: Supplied

Victims, Costello believes, of their own delusion grasp of what's a fortunate reality.

How did this happen?

There was a time when Australians prided ourselves on our generosity. Not merely monetary - though we were known for digging deep for good causes, like various Children's Hospital Appeals, for survivors of natural disasters, to help find cures for different cancers etc. Aussies were also inclined to lend a helping hand when it was needed, even giving the shirt off our backs to those who lacked one on theirs.

There are many instances of random acts of kindness and benevolence still occurring and it's heartwarming and reassuring when we learn about them.

Yet, evidence tells us acts of philanthropy and goodwill are decreasing.

Certainly, donations to charities are on the decline and the government has reduced the amount of foreign aid. While current donors to charities like World Vision continue to be generous, new donors are harder to find.

Carrie Bickmore, who founded the Beanies 4 Brain Cancer Foundation, at the 57th Logie Awards. Picture: Supplied
Carrie Bickmore, who founded the Beanies 4 Brain Cancer Foundation, at the 57th Logie Awards. Picture: Supplied

This is partly because there are so many other causes to give to. How do you choose?

Another reason even small donations are waning is because many charities are demanding bank details for direct deposits.

Even for a one-off donation, this can be a confronting imposition. Rather than give personal particulars, we take our money away.

This effectively renders the altruistic gesture invisible.

People generally like to be seen to give and experience the "warm and fuzzies" this generates.

This is why, in the wake of a crisis or tragedy, so many people, eager to "help" send things as opposed to money. The pleasure lies in the effort of selecting a gift, purchasing and sending it.

For example, many women's refuges around the country receive donations of sanitary products.

Displaced, distraught and in fear, women often leave their abusive homes with nothing, so knowing their sanitary needs can be met is, at one level, reassuring. However, there are now refuges drowning in tampons but lacking funds to provide more beds and professional help.

Ava Staiti, 7, visits a sidewalk memorial with 26 teddy bears, each representing a victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Picture: AP Photo/David Goldman
Ava Staiti, 7, visits a sidewalk memorial with 26 teddy bears, each representing a victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Picture: AP Photo/David Goldman

In the wake of the shocking school shooting at Sandy Hook and the grief and trauma of survivors and the community, over 65,000 teddy bears arrived in a town of 27,000 people. The intentions were good, no doubt, but as storage for the soft toys became impossible, authorities requested people ceased buying them and rather give cash to United Way, an organisation designed to allocate professional support resources as needed.

Some folk objected - more concerned their contribution be acknowledged than donating what was really needed.

Even those who can afford to give a little sometimes wilfully ignore desperate pleas for funds from legitimate overseas and local charities. Persuaded there's no point giving because so much goes to administrators, they construct themselves as victims of some charity rort. Their empathy evaporates because they're being "scammed."

Likewise, compassion fatigue arises because people's inner resources - the ability to keep caring - are stretched so thin.

Invited to wear ribbons, buy beanies, engage in clicktivism, we reassure ourselves we're being civic-minded.

The truth is, while doing something is better than justifying doing nothing, Costello's right. We need to regain perspective and appreciate what we do have - how damn lucky so many of us are and stop bloody whining over tough-all.

Dr Karen Brooks is an honorary senior researcher at IASH at the University of Queensland.

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