The Sunday Times: The feelgood factor: The kindness offensive

November 29th, 2009

Help the homeless, give free hugs or simply be nice — a wave of generosity is sweeping the country

By Jessica Brinton
Published: 29 November 2009

Cargo nightclub, Shoreditch, Saturday night. The MC on stage is wearing stretchy leggings, a tiny camisole, and holding a mike. “I turned 40, you know…” Dance, dance. Well, she looks 15. “And I was worrying about success…” Dance, dance. “And for a long time, it bothered me. How could I be more successful?” Dance, dance. “And I worked it out. You’ve just gotta keep giving!” She throws her arms in the air. “Because it’s the only way.” She spins around. “And if you do, if you really do…” She pauses for effect, hands cupped in front of her. “It’ll all come back to you!” And the crowd erupts. Everyone cheers, everyone hugs each other.

Two years ago, such a declaration might have cleared the dancefloor. There was something mawkishly earnest about this sort of chat, like you were out of touch, a bit of a hippie. Or didn’t have any friends. Now it’s different. Since the – you know, events of the past year – things have changed. We’ve changed. It’s suddenly rather sexy to be kind.

Consider the evidence. Kate Moss tells Women’s Wear Daily – with astounding disingenuousness, admittedly – “I’m not traditionally a beauty, but apparently people think I’m all right. If you’re a nice person, it definitely helps.”

Everyone who watches The September Issue, the documentary about American Vogue, falls madly in love with the creative director, Grace Coddington, the warm, romantic one, not Anna Wintour, the more powerful but cold one.

Tina Brown, Wintour’s longtime rival, launches a philanthropy section on her online news zine, The Daily Beast; Giving Beast documents “Hollywood’s hottest causes”. The latest: Emma Thompson leading the charge on human sex trafficking, and even a picture gallery of stars “speaking out” on the issue. Earlier this month, Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford University, announced that he is pledging a third of his £30,000 salary to charity this year, and will give away 10% for the rest of his working life.

What really did it for me, though, was Victoria Beckham in last week’s Hello!, doing charity work in Kentucky in America, accompanied by her eldest son. “We are incredibly proud that Brooklyn is growing up to be a thoughtful and responsible young man,” says Posh, looking very proud. “Someone who appreciates he has a blessed life and wants to understand and help those who have less than himself.”

We are, it seems, at the end of a grand experiment that tested self-interest as a method of ruling the world – the economist Noreena Hertz is calling it “the death of Gucci capitalism”. And this is our response to it: Barnado’s has seen a 12% increase in volunteers since last April, and by 17% among the under-25s, while 10:10, the climate-change campaign group, has signed more than 50,000 individuals and businesses to the cause. Last year 5,500 companies filed corporate social responsibility reports, proving that installing a CSR wing is becoming standard practice in the business world.

“The world went mental for a while,” says Ben Elliot, founder of the concierge service Quintessentially, who, two months ago, opened Q Soho at House of St Barnabas, a not-for-profit members’ club in a former women’s refuge. It was revamped using the favours of friends and is staffed by homeless people on a custom-designed life-skills programme.

“It was a tsunami of wealth creation. Everything seemed available to all, for a time,” he says. “Now it looks like it wasn’t, actually. The lifestyles our parents never imagined we’d have didn’t exist after all. People are beginning to derive far more satisfaction from helping people rather than making money. There’s a brilliant redress happening.”

Eugenie Harvey of 10:10 agrees. “There’s no doubt in my mind that kindness is the new currency,” she says. “As life becomes tougher, which I’m afraid it’s going to do, being generous to your fellow man will keep the world afloat.”

In August last year, a group of twentysomethings launched The Kindness Offensive, a social experiment designed to “do good in the world, have fun doing good, and be seen to have fun doing good”. It began on Hampstead Heath, where the group approached people walking their dogs and asked if there was anything at all they could do for them. Someone suggested a box of chocolates for their grandmother, who had a sweet tooth, another asked for a birthday party for a little girl. They pulled off these kind-hearted acts by begging favours from companies. The companies responded. The thing snowballed. Last October, an articulated lorry containing 25 tons of food arrived from General Mills, the world’s sixth largest food producer, and the group used it to feed 75,000 people all over London. It’s goose-bump-making stuff.

“On paper, it doesn’t add up that someone at General Mills should have done that,” says the group’s co-founder David Goodfellow (yes, really). “But the paper version of the world is different from the real world. To make sense of it, you have to feel how it feels to be nice to someone.”