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Cheese or charity?

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The UK spends as much on cheese as on giving. Is this fair or can we do more to improve the level of giving in this country? This CAF statistic was the basis of Nick Hurd’s speech at a roundtable held by Philanthropy Impact last week to discuss the role of government, philanthropists and charities.

There was broad consensus among speakers that a change in culture would do more to increase giving than a change in the tax regime.  While I agree with this, I don’t think enough attention was paid to the role that charities can also play in driving more giving by measuring and communicating their impact. The UK public’s mistrust of what some charities do with their money continues—not helped by the outrageous case of tax avoidance by the Cup Trust, unveiled last Thursday by the Times and commented on by Dan Corry. And yet, the vast majority of charities are doing so much good work. If only more could demonstrate their impact, they would get the due recognition they deserve, and there would be less chance of the occasional ‘bad apple’ spoiling the barrel.

Instead, the evening focussed on the role of the media—does it encourage or actually damage philanthropy? Following her analysis of media attitudes to philanthropy, Dr Beth Breeze suggested there is a 15% chance that media reporting on an individual donor will carry a negative connotation. In such an environment, donors are unlikely to put their heads above the parapet and let everyone know what they’re achieving with their giving—and how much fun they’re having.

And yet, peer motivation is one of the most powerful drivers of philanthropy, as exemplified by the Buffet-Gates Giving Pledge in the US. Last week, we were interested to read the announcement about Africa’s first addition to that list, Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s first black billionaire. For a culture in which giving is even less talked about than in the UK, the pledge of half his wealth is a real breakthrough. Another speaker at the roundtable, Michael Green, believes that the UK will have its own version of the giving pledge within five years. We hope this might contribute to a move towards greater celebration and less criticism of philanthropy in this country.

However, Green wasn’t wholly optimistic about the future of giving, worrying about the impact of the new reality of low investment returns on endowments and the tightening of government resources. But he believes that the squeeze affecting all levels of society would spur a much-needed debate about the social obligations of the wealthy, which in itself could secure philanthropy’s place in society. Especially when philanthropists use their unique risk-taking ability to pilot new projects and spur innovation. This is perfectly illustrated by one of the other panellists, Sir Peter Lampl, who with his Sutton Trust and now his Education Endowment Foundation, is doing exactly this within the field of education.

Finally, the role of advisors in encouraging philanthropy was discussed, an area NPC has always felt passionate about. Wealth advisors, lawyers and accountants are extremely well positioned to incorporate giving into conversations with clients, and either support them directly or point them in the direction of available experts. For this reason we run training courses to help bring advisors up to speed on giving—new developments, how to raise the issue and common challenges facing donors—using plenty of case studies from the range of donors we support.

During our latest course, we reflected that things have already moved on considerably. Not only were there a great range of advisors in the room, but most were there because philanthropy was now such an important part of their practice. We even had a healthy discussion about who was, and who wasn’t, charging for philanthropy advice.

We are confident that we will see a continued evolution in culture, driven by advisors openly offering support,  donors putting pressure on their peers to contribute to society,  and a much more positive attitude in the media towards generous philanthropists. Indeed, we hope to see giving levels out-performing cheese purchases in the UK before too long.

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