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  1. Wealth
September 11, 2010

Elephantine Kindnesses

By Spear's

There’s no shame in enjoying yourself while giving to charity, says Clive Aslet

Where will you be on September 11? If the answer is Old Billingsgate in the City of London, you will be able to set eyes on the biggest paper installation that, quite possibly, the world has ever known. If not, I’m afraid you’ll miss it. It’s one-night-only show, a thing of light and shadow which disappears after the gala celebration for the Indian educational charity Pratham that takes place that evening.

It will leave not a wrack behind (although there might have been a few other wracks, after a night of partying Indian-style). Running more or less the whole length of the former market building at Billingsgate, it is being crafted out of thousands of fretwork panels, designed by children and cut out, with exquisite care, by artisans of the kind that can be found in force on the Subcontinent. Altogether, a very Indian affair.

Pratham is a charity of ambition. Since it was founded in 1996, it has taught no fewer than 33m people to read. It marshals an army of around 100,000 volunteers. Teachers establish classes that run between four and 16 weeks – any longer and the pupils start to lose interest. They don’t require expensive buildings, merely a space, whether in the shade of a tree outside a remote rural village or under a flyover in Mumbai or the 30 other cities in which Pratham operates.

‘Wealthier kids may resist discipline,’ says Pratham’s UK chairperson, Reita Gadkari, ‘but these cannot afford to misbehave. We give them lunch; if they don’t come to the class, they may not eat. There is a huge desire to learn.’ One mother told to her: ‘I’m pleased my child can read. Previously I could no understand the label on the medicine bottle.’ Of the £16m that the organisation spends every year, only 5% goes on administration. It’s awesome.

So is the imagination that goes into their fund raising. Among people who have money these days, philanthropy is big – but billionaires are not noted for their attention span and, in a crowded market place, their interest has to be caught, along with their wallets. Art is the Trojan horse, used to get among them and beat down their defences. At the last fund raising bash held by Pratham UK, the theme was puppets. That was in 2007, and the gala raised £1.3m.

In her Notting Hill home, Mrs Gadkari still has a three-foot high papier m?ché mannequin of a bicyclist: it is one of dozens of puppets, each standing on a table, that were auctioned at the end of the evening. Paper provides the theme at Billingsgate. Beneath the dancing patterns of the chandelier, the centrepiece of the tables will be provided by an alphabet of giant, three-dimensional letters made from bamboo – highly coloured and cleverly decorated; again, diners bid for them in the course of the evening.

Ingenious? Yes – but else would you expect of an event run under the name of Articulate, which not only expresses the aim of the charity but captures the creativity of the fund-raising process in its first syllable. Tables at Billingsgate cost £75,000.

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It may seem counter-intuitive to mount a charity spectacular at such a time as this, when Austerity has usurped the throne of Plenty and belts are being worn tightened. Sympathy, many charities are finding, is a readier commodity than money. Still, readers of Spear’s will know that there are still plenty of rich individuals, perhaps gnawed by their consciences for being so blessed, if you know where to look.

No doubt many of them will find themselves in the position of Noddy Boffin in Our Mutual Friend, beset by what Dickens described as ‘corporate beggars’, such as the Society for Granting Annuities to Unassuming Members of the Middle Classes. Pity the billionaire, with so many good causes competing for his cheque book. Charities have to do something special to engage the interest of potential donors.

Last Christmas, the clothes chain Top Shop persuaded Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson and other glamour pusses to donate party dresses, which they then hired out for charity; this Spring they auctioned them. Mothers4Children may sound rather daunting on its website: ‘It is more than just a charity; it is a sisterhood of women, a community of women – mothers, grandmothers, Godmothers, daughters, aunts – the entire female spirit!’

But with the likes of Lisa Bilton, Anya Hindmarch and Trinny Woodall behind it, the outfit has devised some cracking wheezes to raise money: a celebrity garage sale held at Selfridges, for example, and a double-decker bus equipped as a mobile spa, offering treatments on the hoof. Hats off, too, to Mark Shand, author, conservationist and brother to the Duchess of Cornwall: he started the Elephant Family to conserve the Indian elephant in 2002, and was the force behind the Elephant Parade that sent 258 fibreglass elephants, each individually decorated by an artist, onto the streets of London earlier this year.

Elephants were sponsored; Goldie Hawn joined socialites Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, Cyrus and Prya Vandrevala, Tanaz Dizadjl and Mark Shand to host a Mela at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; and the top 30 elephants, auctioned by Henry Wyndham of Sotheby’s, raised $1.5m. Which is not bad a time when animal charities are struggling to enlist serious giving during the downturn.

There may be some puritanical souls who question why glitter and star dust – not inexpensive commodities in themselves – are needed to raise money. Mightn’t the cost of the sprat be added to that of the mackerel which it has caught? To which the reply comes: it’s human nature. We are social beings. We want to improve the world, yes.

But we also want to have fun, dress up, be dazzled, tell jokes. Increasingly, the most successful charities recognise that these instincts are not incompatible. Creativity is generosity of the spirit; charitable giving is generosity of the wallet. They make a great team.

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