Fundraising for a charity is a wonderful thing: a selfless act for the benefit of others. However, it is also an act that can be fraught with controversy: ‘Chuggers’; overly-enthusiastic door-to-door collectors; sometimes murky details about ring-fencing and how much money reaches the intended recipients; crowd-funding campaigns to reunite love-struck holiday romancers. 

And that’s without even opening the can of worms that is the abuses of power in the charity sector that has come to the fore over the past couple of years.

Yet, at its core, charity fundraising is an act of humanitarianism and is taken on by the vast majority of people for the right reasons.

Last Friday night, I gathered with 38 of my work-mates in low temperatures and sporadically heavy rain to take part in a sleep out for one of Ireland’s homeless charities, Focus Ireland, as part of their Shine A Light initiative which encourages businesses to organise sponsored sleep-outs.  

We started arriving between 6.30-8pm, at the end of our working week, with sleeping bags, cardboard, woolly hats and thermal socks. We converged underneath a large yellow banner, designed to let all who passed by know why 39 employed people with warm beds to go to were setting up camp outside in October. We shook our buckets, clutched our sponsorship cards and tweeted, facebooked, instagrammed and snapchatted our little hearts out. We were in good spirits and raised a sizable amount of money for Focus Ireland.

The following day, as I strolled around town clutching a hot cup of coffee and tried to justify buying yet another winter coat, two things happened: First, I was struck by an attack of guilt every time I passed someone begging or sleeping rough.

Later, that guilt was compounded on social media when I saw a post, by someone whose opinion I would respect, questioning the appropriateness of our chosen method of fundraising the previous night.

Of course, my gut instinct was to go on the defensive. But I’m trying to be less reactive. The post posited the view that it might be insulting to homeless people to fundraise by "pretending to be homeless" and questioned if the act trivialised what people genuinely in that situation go through, day in, day out.

When I took pause to consider it, I could understand the poster’s point of view. To look at my social media feed on Friday night, or that of many of my colleagues, it looked like we were having a great laugh. And we were: a local business stopped by with hot tea and biscuits, a well-known band and a comedian paid us a visit because they were on campus and heard about what we were doing.

To be fair, there were even Great Danes and Old English Sheepdogs making themselves available for warm canine cuddles en route to Ireland’s favourite late night talk show! I can see how it looked like we were having a novel sort of a night out.

There’s that guilty feeling again.

Should we have banned visitors and turned down offers of hot drinks and food? Were we trivialising what it means to be truly homeless? I’m not being facetious; I was really worried about how our fundraising efforts had come across. But then, I went back to that phrase, "pretending to be homeless.”

I can say without hesitation that not one out of the 39 of us who slept out that night ever had the notion that we were “pretending to be homeless.” Perhaps it would have been even more disingenuous of us to try to maintain stoic silence and stony expressions as we tried to really put ourselves in the shoes of those who sleep rough day in, day out? Four days later, I’m still asking myself that question, and I still don’t have the answer.

What I can tell you is that, yes, we had fun, to a point. We gathered together for the novel or noble act (you decide) of sleeping in the open air with the intention of showing solidarity and raising funds for those who have no choice but to do it day in, day out.

What I can tell you is that at about 3am, when the temperature dropped, high spirits waned and tiredness kicked in, it stopped being fun. It wasn’t fun to finally find a semblance of comfort on the hard ground and drift off for a couple of minutes, only to be woken by every little noise: flags flapping in the wind, traffic on the motorway close-by, rain pounding on the pavement or, the worst, unidentifiable sounds that were far too close for comfort. It wasn’t fun waking up when the cold really set in, making it impossible to keep warm no matter how many layers you had on. And, it’s not even winter yet.

What I can tell you is that the conversation at 6am, when we all started to come to and count the minutes until our 8am finish time, wasn’t about how great the band had been, how cute the dogs were or how much craic we’d had. It was universally about how cold, noisy and sleepless the last few hours had been and how we were all so grateful for the circumstances of our lives. How lucky we were to be able to get into our cars, go home and take a hot shower, get into a warm bed.

The idea that we would have to pack up our few things, drift around in damp clothes for the day, being moved on every time we got warm or comfortable, before darkness arrived and we had to find a spot on the cold ground to go through it all over again resonated with every single one of us.

None of us were pretending to be homeless, but we did get a glimpse – albeit a tiny one – into how hard it is to go even one night without some of life’s most basic necessities: shelter and warmth. We spoke about the people sleeping rough (102, at last count, in Dublin alone, plus the 69 people attending Merchants Quay Ireland’s Nite Cafe) and the increasing numbers of homeless families with children; the number of families becoming homeless has increased by over 40% since last year and one in three of those in emergency accommodation is now a child.

We spoke about how sleeping out had strengthened our resolve to raise even more money next year and get even more colleagues and friends to take part.

I don’t know if empathy is the right word – I still don’t claim to know how it feels to be homeless – but the experience has certainly helped me to understand the difficulties facing people without anywhere to get some food, shelter and rest as it gets increasingly colder, and I know it has mobilised my colleagues and I to do as much as we can to help. Surely that can only be a good thing?

I’d be really interested to hear your views on this. Please email me or tweet @sheenamadden

If you are affected by homelessness or related issues, you can contact Focus Ireland here

If you want to take part in this Friday’s Focus Ireland Shine A Light sleep out, click here.

You can also donate money to Focus Ireland here.