Funding the Big Society—a new role for philanthropists?

2 August 2010

‘If you want the world to be a better place, then do something about it. No government in the world has the resources to do all that is needed. Charitable giving is fundamental to a healthy society’.

This quote from Nick Ferguson, the chairman of the Institute for Philanthropy, sprang to mind as I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday. Sir John Ritblat was discussing giving in the arts, saying how, as a philanthropist he would happily continue funding projects like exhibitions but that he would be deterred from funding areas that he felt were government’s responsibility.

It made me think—what is government’s responsibility in this age of the Big Society? Whether in the arts, in social care, or even in education, where does the role of government end and the role of ‘society’ begin? And where does charitable giving fit in?

If charitable giving is ‘fundamental to a healthy society’ then presumably it is fundamental to a Big Society. Yet funding the Big Society is a bit of a grey area. We like to divide our society into neat little categories—government, third sector and private sector. But when thinking about solutions these three categories simply don’t cut it anymore. Funding the Big Society is going to take some diverse revenue sources—philanthropists, CSR, government and even individuals own 1% donations all have a role and responsibility. The relationship between philanthropists and government is one that is drastically in need of an update—the US is miles ahead in this area as we mentioned in our manifesto for social impact.

Government is keen to advocate that its new strategy towards philanthropy is not about plugging the gaps in public spending—but they are also keen to express that building the Big Society is the responsibility of every citizen as well as every government department. So let’s start talking about how to share this responsibility.

If philanthropists aren’t willing to consider funding areas previously thought of as government responsibility and government isn’t savvy enough to take measures to encourage more philanthropic giving and more effective giving …just how are we going to fund this Big Society everyone is talking about?