a heart cut out of an apple

We need to talk

By Russell Hargrave 18 May 2014

For a couple of weeks each year, all those media tales of austerity and woe are replaced by something else.

It is time for the Sunday Times Rich List. Published this morning, it is a chance to press our communal noses against the shop window and gape at the staggering amounts of cash enjoyed by some of our fellow British residents. Things soon return to normal in the press but, for a short time only, money appears to be falling around us like confetti.

This isn’t just about who has accrued wealth and how much, though. A week before embarking on this stock-take of the mega-rich, the Sunday Times produces the Giving List, to celebrate the flurry of money dispensed to good causes each year. Thus we know that the Sainsbury Family gave away a whopping £160m in a single year. One Direction gave away more than £2m, a large chunk dedicated to fighting bullying in schools, while golfer Colin Montgomery funded two centres for treating cancer at a cost of nearly £4m.

You didn’t get on this list unless you had given away serious amounts of money. And you probably didn’t lead the newspaper coverage unless you were already famous, as a supermarket magnate or musician or sport star. But the list also included the born-to-wealth and the rags-to-riches who will endure fleeting fame in these pages, and will look forward to vanishing into relative obscurity again.

British culture has an enduring fondness for modesty in giving money away, the humble philanthropist who quietly distributes surplus income to people who need it more. It has a Victorian ring to it–all dignified generosity, no fuss made.

Except that fear of fuss has also squashed the chance to take pride in the philanthropic process. Why not be proud, in public, that the UK has a culture of giving private money to fund public good? The Evening Standard recently denounced dinner parties with ‘philanthrobores’, but there are far, far worse things for people to be boring about.

This is a question NPC has explored in the past. If people who could give money away but don’t, what would entice them? Just to get them thinking about it positively would be a start. To offer them some public role models would be a stronger step still. At the end of 2011 we called for the establishment of a ‘Giving pledge’, based on the US model of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, which could explicitly outline how philanthropy acted as positive motivation for others. We also observed that media reporting on philanthropy was relatively rare but, at its best, was ‘providing readers with greater insight into the motivations and benefits of giving, and the complexities in choosing how and where to give’.

Support for even more people to give away even more money. It’s time may yet come.