Looking for transparency in student charity

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“Following on from the success of Bigtop Ball, the charities campaign is proud to present…” the advertisement goes for the new Masquerade ball. Reading the above sentence, I’m left wondering what success they are talking about (rumour has that they actually lost money in the second year). They certainly received good reviews, but is that the measure of a successful charity ball?

In browsing the Union websites and the Bigtop Ball’s own pages, I am experiencing difficulty finding any numbers that could tell me just how charitable the ball was. There is no way to see how much money they earned and where that money was spent. It is without a doubt difficult to find anything about the success of collecting money for charity. The Union does not provide these numbers, and when asked about a budget, they apparently could not find it. We are left wondering how successful this ball has really been.

I bring this up, not to rattle the Bigtop Ball or the Union, but because I believe transparency is paramount, and the lack of transparency of various events is disconcerting. This is especially because charity balls in St Andrews are a huge phenomenon and a single student can spend more than 35 pounds on one ticket. They make for outstanding, professional, and creative nights out, and for great causes as well. To be able to have a great night out and to know that the money being spent is not just spent frivolously, but also goes to charity, is another incentive to spend money on these events. The seemingly charitable spirit in St Andrews is something we all can and should appreciate.

That being said, transparency should be a crucial value in any event that claims to be charitable and that takes money from either students or the union, or both (taking money from the union is technically the same as taking money from students). We should know how our money is being spent, and how much of it is being spent where. Of course, this is not just about the event organisers making the numbers available for us to peruse, but is also about students asking questions about where the money is being spent. If we don’t care about where the money is being spent, and whether any money goes to charity at all, then there seems to be no point in the numbers being made accessible to us. Students have a responsibility to ask questions and to make sure that the events that claim to be charitable actually are charitable.

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Illustration by Sibilla Grenon

This brings me to another point: what warrants the charity balls’ title as charities? Am I charitable for giving the leftover change from buying my morning coffee to the barista (or a charity, if that makes it any better)? There is more to being charitable than simply giving what is left after expenses are paid. Needless to say, charity events have to pay for their expenses, but I think if an event is claiming the title of being charitable, it should do more than just send off excess money. I think claiming to be charitable comes with the responsibility to spend money effectively and in a way that makes the greatest impact and difference possible.

Following that point, there are good reasons to think that not all charities are equal – some are more equal than others. This is perhaps slightly more controversial, but there is a case to be made about what kinds of charities the money goes to. We should think about where we want our money to go, as there are questions about reliability and effectiveness to be answered. Our money can make a huge difference if it is used appropriately. Some charities will spend money less effectively and will have less of an impact. Other charities might make a greater difference.

Considering this point, some people might argue that it’s better to spend money on a charity event than on a non-charity event (regardless of how effective the charity is compared to other charities); however, is it good simply because some of the money the event earns goes to charity? I think this is a lethargic argument, simply because it enforces the status quo of not investigating how the money is being used. It makes us think that it is OK to spend money on a charity event because it is better than spending it on a non-charity event. It makes us content with a mediocre position, and we are stuck making little progress and less impact than we could have made.

I therefore think it is important to point out that this is not a criticism of the money the balls raise, but an encouragement to students spending their money on tickets to be inquisitive and interested in knowing where the money is being spent. It is also an encouragement to the organisers of these events to provide more detail to let students know that their money is being used responsibly. I think this is especially important considering the popularity of movements like Effective Altruism and Giving What We Can, which encourage evidence-based giving. If charity events in St Andrews adopted an evidence-based approach to giving, they could have a huge impact. With an evidence-based approach, transparency must necessarily follow, so that people actually spending and donating money can know where their money is being used and if the money is used in an effective and impactful way.

This is why this is not as much a criticism of charity events as it is an encouragement to approach giving and charity in a transparent and effective manner. I want charity and charity events to continue to be a big part of life in St Andrews, and if they do continue to be such a big part of St Andrews, we should be able to make sure that these events are being conducted properly, and in a charitable fashion.

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