Should “Philanthropy” belong to the Rich?

In the UK, “Philanthropy” is now commonly used to refer to charitable giving by very rich individuals.

It originally meant love of humanity, particularly as expressed in practical ways. In North America, the word is still used to refer to the whole field of charitable endeavour, not just giving by the rich. And even in the UK the adjective philanthropic is sometimes used in a broader sense roughly synonymous with “charitable”, as in “philanthropic organisations” or “philanthropic endeavours”. But when people talk in the UK about philanthropy or a philanthropist, they will ususally have in mind the Rowntrees, the Carnegies, the Cadbury’s and their modern wealthy successors. They will be excluding the giving of time and excluding the massed ranks of donors to charity.

For example, the Charities Aid Foundation “Future of Philanthropy” series of publications “looks at the attitudes to giving of 5,795 wealthy individuals worldwide – making it the largest ever survey into global philanthropic attitudes”. And when Rhodri Davies of CAF produced his very interesting historical survey “Public Good by Private Means – How Philanthropy Shapes Britain” last year he omitted altogether, for example, the very important rise of collective philanthropy by millions of people filling in their direct debits – since philanthropy is seen as the domain of the wealthy individual. Sensing that this is how the word will be understood, New Philanthropy Capital goes out of its way on its website to state that although it began life primarily focused on wealthy donors, it now serves a wide variety of funders, charities and social enterprises, shaking off the more restrictive connotations of the P word. Others such as “The Centre for Philanthropy and Charity Giving” get round the issue by yoking philanthropy and charity giving firmly together and avoiding the need to explain the difference between them.

A case can be made for the UK usage of philanthropy as the domain of wealthy individuals (with the twist that what were once individual philanthropic bequests are now often run as Foundations by not-so-wealthy voluntary sector professionals). It is very difficult to raise the overall level of charitable giving in the UK, and increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit large numbers of new donors. For some kinds of large project – a new university building, a church with a small congregation needing refurbishment – raising the money from lots of small donors is not an option. In many circumstances, a good deployment of finite fundraising effort may include trying to get more out of very wealthy individuals, especially in an era of increasing inequality and strapped public sector budgets. A small industry of personal bankers, advisers and specialist fundraisers feeds off the philanthropy of the wealthy, and those cultivating rich individuals have a different job from those of mass marketeers. They need a language to define their area of operations, and “philanthropy” suits them. More important, the warm glow of the P word, with its associations of love for humankind and centuries of admiration for famously generous individuals, is an attractive magnet for today’s wealthy individuals. If they give on the grand scale, they will be rewarded with the cachet of a fine historical tradition, the special status and respect due to the philanthropist. For all these reasons, why should we not just go with the UK usage of philanthropy as generous giving of money by the wealthy?

If we do, we should be aware of possible downsides.

One is that it can lead to some confusion and imprecision if the word is used in different ways on different sides of the Atlantic, and even on this side of the Atlantic; and when there is no clear definition of where generous donations end and philanthropy begins. Still, a sector permanently accustomed to imprecision over the meaning of “charity”,”civil society”, “voluntary sector”, “third sector” and the like can certainly live with one more vague word.

More significant, we are withholding the warm cachet of philanthropy from all those who are not wealthy individuals. Volunteering is excluded. Really big bucks get you into the Pantheon, but not the proportionately larger share of income given by poorer donors. Perhaps charities particularly concerned with the struggle to eliminate poverty, and the injustices associated with growing inequality, will not be the only ones slightly uncomfortable with the appropriation of the P word to entice, cajole and reward the most wealthy?

Do we want to edge equally or more significant aspects of charitable giving out of the philanthropic limelight? Collective philanthropy may be even greater in scale than the rich individual variety. As a rough proxy for much giving by wealthy philanthropists, dead and alive, UK Charitable Trusts and Foundations give out approximately £3 billion per year, a figure inflated by the monster £950 million of spending on charitable activities by The Wellcome Trust. By comparison, according to the NCVO Almanack, donors giving £100 or more per month in 2011/12 contributed £3.7 billion (still about £3 billion if donations of over £1 million are excluded)  and those giving between £25 and £100 per month contributed £3.53 billion (out of a total of £9.3 billion of charity giving that year). The proportion of households making donations in a planned and “pre-committed” way such as direct debits and standing orders rose from 36 per cent in 1983 to 63 per cent in 2008. The share of total donations made in this pre-committed or planned way reached 46 per cent in 2008. Most of this massive, purposeful giving is largely excluded from the narrower definition of philanthropy as a matter for wealthy individuals. The leaving of legacies by those who are not very wealthy is also excluded: £2.2 billion is left to charities in wills every year, at an average value of £18,000.

It is not just the scale, but the type, of giving that counts. The collective philanthropy of many non-wealthy donors can provide a more reliable core of income on which charities can build long term plans. It is usually more constant and faithful than the giving of an individual philanthropist or Trust, and with fewer strings attached. Independence and legitimacy can be enhanced by abundant numbers of supporters. With these features, it has changed the face of the charity sector, of much service delivery  and even of politics since the 1970s.

For example, the cumulative voluntary income of international aid and development charities in the top 500 charities rose from under £100 million in 1976 to £1.3 billion in 2008. The voluntary income of medical and health charities rose from £300 million to £1.4 billion in the same period. The income of today’s 9 leading environmental and conservation groups rose from just over £1 million in 1980 to over £600 million by 2005, while membership of environmental organisations went up from about 750,000 in 1971 to 7 million by 2008. There are many other examples in different subject areas. The salient factor in all this has been the explosion of typically comfortably off, but not rich, people making a conscious commitment to support such organisations regularly as a way of loving humankind and influencing the world around them for the better – a manifestation of philanthropy in the original meaning of the word.

Matthew Hilton and his colleagues from Birmingham University have some fascinating insights into this phenomenon in books such as “The Politics of Expertise” (Oxford, 2013). They suggest that “Individually, citizens have increasingly come to place their trust in bodies of experts better positioned than themselves to make cases based on their values, interests and beliefs.” They have delegated this task to expert NGOs as their “agents”, pitting “their” experts representing their values and concerns against those of other kinds of lobbies and interests. “Members of the public”, they conclude, “have also personalised and privatized politics and acknowledged too that their everyday concerns are better articulated by those with the resources to understand them comprehensively. This is neither depoliticization or re-politicization. It is, instead, the transformation of politics and the re-orientation of state-society relations in an era of technocratic expertise.” This collective philanthropy – where I choose to ally myself with many other supporters of a charity with whose aims I associate myself – has helped transform the agenda of public debate and political action, and diversified participation and inclusion in our democratic life as well as our delivery of services. Should not this kind of transformative change –  and there are other examples in the wider field of charitable giving of time and money – be part of the history of philanthropy, alongside what rich individuals have done?

So next time you read or hear a reference to “philanthropy”, ask yourself if what is meant is the individual giving of the rich, or the broader North American meaning; and, if it is the former, remember how much volunteering and collective philanthropy, as a transformative expression of love for humanity, is being excluded from the warm glow of the P word.


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