Dame Hilary Blume interview: It’s a gift
The charity entrepreneur Dame Hilary Blume talks to Stephen Tomkins
If you’ve ever bought someone a goat for Christmas – or a safe water supply, or clothes for refugees – you have been following in the path of Hilary Blume. She pioneered this alternative way of giving, starting the Good Gifts catalogue in 2003. She also founded Card Aid, which runs the shops that sell charity Christmas cards. Each year, Card Aid delivers the Scrooge Award, naming the company selling charity cards which gives the smallest proportion to charity.
She may be a leading figure in the world of aid, but when Reform visited her in her Hampstead office to talk about faith and charity, we found she had some strong criticisms to make of that world.
You’ve devoted your working life to charity. What does that say about you?
Actually I’ve devoted my life to making money, but I don’t want to keep it. It’s a slightly different thing. From quite young, probably age eight, I was thinking up schemes for raising money. But you can’t wear two coats, can you?
A lot of people have an urge to make money, but don’t see the need to pass so much of it on.
Well they love the money, I love the method of making money. It’s different. I was reading a story to my grandson, three-year-old, and somebody said: “Every question has an answer”. I like finding the answer.
At the moment we’re looking at causes of poverty in the UK. And one of the things that throws people into debt is the cost of funerals. So all of a sudden I have a great interest in how much it costs to build a crematorium. It’s quite an interesting problem.
Let’s talk about Good Gifts. That’s become a very familiar concept – buying a charitable donation as a gift for a loved one. How did it originate?
It came out of two things. My eldest sister has some very grand friends, and she said: “I don’t know what to buy them for their ruby wedding.” I said: “Why don’t you plant some street trees near them?” – which I know how to do and most people don’t – and she really liked the idea. And then it was our silver wedding and my husband’s 60th birthday. And we got given so much stuff, and someone gave me a year’s tuition for a student. I really liked that. It made me feel quite happy. So I started the Good Gifts catalogue, which everybody else has copied.
How do you feel about the way the idea has proliferated?
It’s fine. I was upset at first, but one of my sons said: “Mum, do you want the person to get the goat? Do you care where it comes from?” And that’s true. It’s about the people getting the goat, it’s not that they should get it from me, because I thought of it.
But I wish they’d be honest. I think there should be a goat. If you say to people: “Here’s a picture of a goat, buy a goat for somebody,” then you should use the money to buy a goat. You shouldn’t then say: “We use the money wherever its most needed.” Because what happens is: if you’re sitting in an office opposite somebody who’s got two children and a big mortgage and if he loses his job you know exactly what the suffering will be, you start believing that’s where it’s most needed. And it’s not.
I don’t like the dishonesty. I think it comes back and bites you, as a practical thing, but I just think it’s morally wrong. It’s indefensible.
I read that you once gave your five-year-old granddaughter a Christmas present of a £20 voucher to “whittle down the national debt”. How did that go down with her?
Oh, I gave all my descendants that. They have plenty. The three-year-old I was very pleased. He once picked up some money on the street, and he gave it to his mother and said: “We should give it to someone who hasn’t got so much.” And anyway, no one in our family is allowed to say anything other than thank you when they get a present.
All my children are good. When people say to me: “You just want your children to be happy,” I say: “No, this is not a consideration for me.” I mean, if they’re happy, this is good. But you get happy from being good. I want them to do their duty.
Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
I’m from a Jewish family. I’m the third generation in the UK. My parents – my father particularly – came from a family that was very poor. And he worked hard and made good. My parents were very, very respectable, very decent people. They lived by a Jewish ethic.
My parents had a neighbour who was widowed, and when she went into hospital my father would visit her on his way home from work, because she’d been a refugee from Vienna and she had no family. And I remember her saying: “It’s very lonely in the evening,” so my mother used to go round there every single evening, and sit with her.
So they were very practical people. And they were just very good people, very caring.
And quite strict! My sister used to say: “Oh don’t say that, Mummy, you upset me.” And my mother used to say: “What’s special about you that you can’t be upset?”
She was very intolerant to the notion that you moaned because you had so much work to do. She’d say: “Well, get on with it.”
Was religion important?
Very. Yes. I sound funny, but from a very early age I had a sense of a walk with God. You don’t always walk with God but sometimes you walk with God. And you feel God’s pleasure.
What do you feel gives him pleasure?
Being good. Helping other people. Appreciating. You know I find it very funny that people pray. I feel it’s so ungrateful. Look how much we’ve got! And they’re sat there saying: “Do this for me! Do that for me!” You should just be thankful for what you’ve got.
You make one journey and you should leave better – if you can. I feel it’s not much testimony to my work – 40 years in the voluntary sector and the place is still a shambles.
Were your parents charitable?
God, yes. I mean, Jewish people are charitable. There’s no getting away from it. You give 10 per cent of your income. The beggar gives 10 per cent and the rich man gives 10 per cent. We’re all equal; we’re all in God’s image. The teaching says that you might be rich in this generation, but your grandchildren might be poor – how do you want them to be treated?
You studied history and took a masters in antisemitism. Is that a subject you had or have had much experience of?
Well actually, born in 1945, it very much went out of fashion. But it’s come back into fashion. This stuff about Israel I find intrinsically antisemitic. I find it very interesting that all these so-called pro-Palestinian groups are very silent about the killing of Palestinians in Syria.
So yes, being Jewish is very important to me. And being fair is very important. If you’re the youngest of three children, your catchphrase is: “It’s not fair.”
Was there anything in particular that then took you into charity work?
In the 1960s and 70s there were so few graduates that if you applied for a job you were fairly confident of getting it. I saw an ad in the papers that said “fundraiser for charity” and I thought: “Gosh there’s a job I could do and I’d like to do.” It’s all to do with liking making money.
I phoned up two or three organisations, and one of the jobs was race relations, and they just took longer getting back to me, so it’s quite down to chance where you end up.
You set up what’s now the Charities Advisory Trust in 1979. Did that desire to offer fundraising advice to charities come from a sense that there was bad practice that needed to be addressed?
That they could sharpen up their act, yes. I was aware that a lot of them were going into trading, and they really lost money at it. Someone saying: “I’d like to set up a travel agency, or a café [to raise money]”. Well, use your own money! Would you invest your own money in it? If not, don’t invest charities’.
For the sake of readers who would like to do a better job raising funds for churches and voluntary organisations, what’s the secret of successful fundraising?
Oh, there’s no secret. The only key to fundraising is you have to ask. If you ask enough people, somebody will say yes. It’s really as simple as that.
Where did the idea for Card Aid come from?
That came from two charities we were advising who both wanted to do Christmas cards. We found that by pooling the printing order they got a much better price.
There were only two major suppliers in those days and it was very expensive, so it didn’t work well. I thought: “It’s all very well berating them for not doing it properly, but actually the method and ability to do it aren’t there, so why don’t we create something?”
And then we moved away from advising because they never listened to advice. We moved over to finding very practical solutions to problems which we perceived and perhaps they didn’t. Like the Card Aid shops: they wanted to sell their cards, they wanted to get their name in front of the public, the public were willing to buy the cards, but where do you do it? So it’s always trying to find a practical solution. Like the book said: “Every question has an answer.”
Scrooge Awards seem to reflect an anxiety we all have that the good will of charitable people can easily be abused. Is that a major concern?
Yes, I mean, what do the 10 Commandments say? You shouldn’t bear false witness. So why are you? Why is it all right? A lot of the present problems that we’re seeing in our society is a lack of honesty. You stick horsemeat in because they won’t know the difference and you lie about Libor. This is what’s known as bad behaviour and it’s not clever.
The last Scrooge awards we gave to Debenhams. They had been giving 20 per cent before and they got it down to eight per cent, and when we exposed it they immediately recanted. That went up to 20 per cent. But that was for the NSPCC, and the NSPCC should have done that, not us.
Then again, that was eight per cent and going back to 2004 you gave the award to John Lewis for giving only 1.5 per cent of its Royal Academy Christmas cards…
Oh yes, we’ve really pushed it up, really pushed it up. The funny thing is that the charities aren’t pleased with me. They’re really cross with me.
Well, I suppose we don’t like to be shown up. It’s very difficult, as you get bigger not to think your job is to defend your charity. The beneficiaries tend to come somewhere down the line.
Do you give to beggars?
Yes. Do you know what the Jewish ruling is? If somebody says to you “I’m hungry”, you have an obligation to feed him. You give him a dried fig, which has got lots of calories and brings it down to a very small amount.
Also Bob Holman used to say to me: “Hilary, you should always give to beggars because otherwise they’re going to steal to support their drug habits”, and I tend to agree with that. My children say to me: “Drinking and drugs are a very sensible response to living on the streets.” Why wouldn’t you? And also, for them it’s a job.
Though some people prefer to give to a homeless charity…
Give to both. What’s the problem? People worry more about rationalising their not giving. It’s easier to give and not think about it.
I don’t give an enormous amount. My children are quite shocked. They say: “How can you give so little?” Well, I think a pound is quite a lot really. But that’s because my first wage was £3.50 a week. They say that the great dividing line on giving is an age thing. If you were born around the war, you think 10p is two shillings and that’s quite a lot. Whereas my children think there’s no money less than a pound. They think the rest is just to annoy them.
A lot of aid agencies seem to have changed their priorities these days from helping individual people and communities to addressing national and international systems. Is that sound?
The thing about campaigning is, it’s so much nicer to do campaigning than to ask people for money. Staff would much rather do that, and mix with grand people and feel they’re having influence. I have very little sympathy for it. I’m much more concerned with very small targets. I say to the staff here: “Let’s help three people.” If we all help three people, it’ll be a much better place.
Would you prefer to see a separation between campaigning organisations and charities?
Yes. I thought the recent campaign “if” was nonsensical, like “mummies and daddies should be nice to each other.”
I don’t know why Make Poverty History think they achieved so much. As far as I can see, the only way you make poverty history is to redefine poverty. The present definition is a proportion of the average wage. Therefore we will always have poverty.
So there’s a lot of sloppy thinking, and an awful lot of sentimentality. You know, the picture of the baby with flies on its eyes: “Give three pounds a week.” Giving three pounds a week is not going to save that child. Two-thirds of it’s paying for the advertising.
A major charity is going to be spending probably a third of its income on fundraising, and I’m just not interested in going that way. I’m too mean. Every time I spend a pound I think of eight bowls of rice that could feed hungry children.
You were a member of the National Lottery Commission for a little while. Do you think the lottery is a good thing for the country?
I don’t think it’s particularly bad thing.
Some would say it exists to raise money by selling false hopes to people.
Yes, but people are adults. What I hate much more is that you open your computer and there are pornographic messages with words I don’t think I should be exposed to. It’s horrible. I feel I’m living in Sodom and Gomorrah – but of course that’s the popular view, because actually Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed because there was no charity in it. They were bad to strangers.
Ordinary people wanting to do some good in the world face a baffling range of options, from driving less to sponsoring a child. What are the most important things I can do to make a difference?
Everything you do makes a difference. You do what you can, and what’s most important to you. I make wonderful compost.
This article was published in the April 2013 edition of Reform.