The Sir Ray Avery controversy shows why we need to shine a light on charities

by The Listener / 03 August, 2018
Philanthropist Ray Avery. Photo/Getty Images

Philanthropist Ray Avery. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Sir Ray Avery Life pod

Donors need to feel confident that charities are doing the right thing. Sir Ray Avery's overselling and under-delivering of his life-pods do not inspire this.

The controversy over philanthropist Sir Ray Avery’s cancelled Eden Park charity concert has raised some unexpected but useful questions.

In this Givealittle age, how can we tell which charities to trust, and which are most effective? This fundraiser was pitched as saving babies in poor countries. Yet it turns out there’s no reliable timeline for when this baby-saving might begin to occur, despite the charity mogul’s deep pockets and high media profile.

At first, it looked a simple case of nimby-ism by locals, who opposed Avery’s concert because they suspected Trojan horse commercial ambitions on the part of Eden Park’s administrators.

Then questions arose about the status of Avery’s charitable work, and concern over suburban noise levels paled into insignificance.

It now appears Avery’s scheme to bring revolutionary new incubators to save the lives of babies in the Third World has been oversold and has under-delivered.

Donors, ranging from a primary school to Trade Me founder Sam Morgan, have spoken publicly about their disillusionment. The development and certification of Avery’s “life-pods” has been considerably slower than the engineer/inventor had indicated to some donors and financial and technical collaborators.

The project carries on, and, in fairness, its failure to install a single life-pod thus far probably wouldn’t surprise anyone with experience in the exacting legal and logistical trajectory of new inventions.

Nor would it surprise those familiar with health services in developing countries, where clean water, reliable power generation and an inability to keep things cool and dry can be serious obstacles.

What remains dismaying is Avery’s self-aggrandisement and bombast. To put it kindly, he has been big-noting. This can’t help but disconcert other past and potential donors, including most who can spare only a few dollars. New charities spring up frequently, as an empathetic response to suffering and injustice.

But we need to keep asking: are those soliciting the money the right people with the right experience and judgment to address the particular problem?

And why a whole new charity, when existing, experienced organisations may better deliver results?

Charities are necessarily increasingly complex organisations. Some try to address the causes of suffering, as well as alleviate it. Controversially, this leads some to double as political lobbies. But at the administration and logistical level, it’s a job for experts, not well-meaning amateurs. Our finest charitable impulses can actually make things worse. Volunteering in orphanages has been found to traumatise children, who bond with the kindly strangers, only to be devastated when they inevitably leave.

Avery’s is far from the only charity under an uncomfortable spotlight. Some who once collected for Plunket, one of this country’s most beloved institutions, are now picketing it, following what appears to have been an excessively hard-nosed reorganisation.

More horrifyingly, some of the world’s most trusted charities have been forced to confront the fact that paedophiles have long infiltrated their ranks.

Now, crowdfunding via social media enables unscrupulous individuals to scam our good natures, such as the British woman convicted this year after pocketing more than $2000, while posing as a pregnant woman with stomach cancer.

It’s possible, up to a point, to check out those soliciting for a cause. A good start is to ask which funding tier they’re on, according to the Government’s new four-tier accountability system for charities of varying sizes. Anyone soliciting donations should, at the very least, have established the correct legal and accountability basis on which to proceed.

Alas, even legally compliant charities will not necessarily be able to deliver what they promise. Even those that do a good job are sometimes guilty of “chugging” – aggressive doorstop and street pitches cunningly designed to shame, wheedle or even bully people into signing up to direct debits.

Although celebrity and vanity involvement engenders scepticism, it is often a boon. The royal family has turbo-charged funding and empathy for a slew of causes. Tech billionaire Bill Gates and author JK Rowling run meticulously well-researched charitable foundations and could hardly be accused of grandstanding. Former All Black Sir John Kirwan has worked wonders here for the cause of men’s mental health.

However, controversies such as the one over Avery’s incubators are a useful reminder that fame, money and a degree of know-how are not the stuff of quick fixes.

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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