‘Getting into the charity sector isn’t valued’: an interview with RAG

Catherine Lally 8 November 2017

Cambridge RAG is one of the University's most visible societies, raising over £100,000 a year for various charities and causes. RAG has a sizeable reach within the student population, fundraising through events like Jailbreak, Blind Date, and its weekly club night, Ragtime. Last weekend, RAG held LOST – where participants were dropped off at an undisclosed location and had 24 hours to make it back to Cambridge – all in the name of charity. TCS sat down with Julia Nielsen, RAG President, and Louis Slater, its Chair, to discuss RAG's role in Cambridge. 

Julia and Louis are ardent in their support of RAG's selected charities. Both spoke glowingly of the enthusiasm of so many Cambridge students, saying that they tend to be "very, very giving" and increasingly aware of their privileged status. With so many new charity schemes springing up around Cambridge over the last few years, RAG created their Student Grant Schemes programme to benefit smaller charities who usually have few other sources of funding. When asked if RAG's events were too inherently focused on fun for students to meaningfully engage with the causes they were supposed to support, Julia and Louis disagreed. Louis noted that the people who get involved in RAG might not do any kind of charity fundraising otherwise. Julia asked observers to consider how much money LOST and Jailbreak actually raise – and emphasized that the fundraising that participants do on the side means that most Jailbreak pairs can raise thousands. They were also critical of the idea that charity needs to be sanctimonious – Julia pointed out that university students want to have 'the time of their lives' and do fun things – adding a charitable dimension to it does not have to be a problem. 

In a similar vein, Jailbreak has sometimes been disparaged for having students use money they'd raise for charity to travel across the world – with previous destinations including Dubai and Tokyo. Some have felt that Jailbreak had a tendency to be financially-exclusionary, with students often having to pay for their own flights back home. Julia and Louis see problems with how certain elements of RAG in the past, and are in the midst of announcing important changes. They cannot reveal much yet, but would like to see less of a focus on long-haul travel and more on the fundraising (with fewer international challenges overall). They hope to make sure RAG can become as transparent and efficient as possible, while still remaining 'inclusive and unintimidating.' 

RAG is currently trying to work with the Careers Service to encourage more Cambridge students to think about entering the charity sector after completing their degrees. Louis and Julia believe that too a small percentage of students see these careers as viable, while at Cambridge there is so much streamlining of graduates into 'particular careers'. Louis worries that because the charity sector cannot compete with the pay offered by the financial sector, jobs in charities are seen as 'less-worthy' – even if they are some of the most competitive to get into. RAG wants to offer more students the chance to gain fund-raising practice through volunteering at its local charities (notably FoodCycle, which offers experience at its headquarters and food kitchens).  

TCS asked Julia and Louis if they felt universities had a problem with students supporting charities that lacked transparency. They feel that a fall in giving to charities nationally in the last few years can be attributed in part to the public becoming more aware of charities' overheads – which are sometimes unnecessarily large. RAG ensured that their '10 Sponsored Charities' this year (4 of which are locally-based, 2 are national and 4 are international) were as effective as possible, by doing a financial breakdown for each charity with the help of Effective Altruism Cambridge. People are often not 'as critical of charity as they should be,' but this is not the case in Cambridge and Oxford. Julia highlighted that RAG is beginning to do an annual impact report, and believes every charity should do the same. Julia spoke about how proud she is that Cambridge RAG accords so much priority to the local community. She points to the Cambridge Central Aid Society, which is small and volunteer-led with no overheads. It works to alleviate homelessness in Cambridge: what they see as the city's biggest humanitarian problem. They'd like to address in some way the glaring disparity between 'haves and have-nots' outside of college walls. Julia also believes that we still do not do enough to tackle mental health issues, which manifest themselves so 'strongly' in Cambridge because it's such a 'stressed environment.' 

The interview then veered towards politics, with mention of the 'Gagging Law' which prevents many charity organisations campaigning in the run-up to the last General Election. Julia emphasised the non-political nature of RAG, as it means to be as inclusive as possible to widen its participation. Nonetheless, Louis noted that, 'the existence of charity is so often a symptom of the failure of government,' and disagreed that charities – who wind up compensating for government shortfalls and have insight into what happens on the ground – should not be able to share their experiences. He believes all charity is political, although it is not necessarily party-political, and so often speaks up for the marginalized and voiceless in society.