What Kind of Society Do We Want to Build? One Which Opens Up Philanthropy and Allows People to Be Generous

This article was published in Philanthropy Impact’s Magazine Issue 24, available here.


With the current challenges in charity funding, being open to generosity in different forms may prove a better investment than taking a narrow view. The often misunderstood concept of philanthropy needs to be interpreted in an inclusive way as an open system which relies upon people of very varied financial means

The COVID crisis should provide evidence of why philanthropy matters and why we need to take it more seriously than ever before in a society open to generosity. One cause for optimism during these bleakest of times has been a voluntary spirit and desire to help others, which emerged right from the start of the lockdown. Admonished to stay at home and protect the NHS, many instead found ways to help other human beings rather than stay still, immobilised by public mandate.

For example, in my own town, a group of residents — many already affiliated with local charities — had organised themselves into a help force before the NHS issued its appeal for volunteers. When the national programme proved ineffective in satisfying the demand to give time, they continued as before to deliver shopping, connect with people living alone and marshal support for the food bank. Some of them had experienced their own means of earning a living disappear abruptly but they still found the energy and motivation to be generous with their time and resources.

When choir practices came to an abrupt end, the leader of my choir persuaded members to make our own individual recordings of his harmonised version of Carol King’s You’ve Got A Friend and then, with help, worked night and day to synchronise 276 voices for release on YouTube. With the theme of isolation in mind, he canvassed opinion and selected the Women’s Aid Live Chat service as a destination for the donations we gave willingly in return for participating. And once the final recording was distributed within our own networks, the £10,000 target was rapidly exceeded and over £100,000 had been raised at the last count. The shared social experience of singing together had taken on a new and more meaningful nature.

Perhaps none of this sounds remarkable. Choirs often fundraise and many charities, including food banks, necessarily rely upon the conscience of local residents. This was, however, a remarkable time in which there were unprecedented constraints upon giving voluntarily, but people chose to overcome them and gave themselves permission to care for others. If it was not abundantly clear already, then it should be clear now, that the state could not fulfil every need and this was particularly evident within the system of health. The desire for active participation in raising money to provide for others was perhaps best exemplified by Captain Tom who has raised over £30 million pounds even though his chosen cause was the NHS itself.

The charity in which I serve as chair of the trustee board has, for the first time, launched an emergency appeal which has far exceeded its initial target, attracting our largest single donation as well as multiple smaller gifts of very varying amounts. These donors can be assured that their chosen organisation, which delivers highly specialised pre-hospital emergency medicine, has continued to deliver a full service throughout the crisis when many other medical treatments were withdrawn. As a self-governing charity, it was founded by

local people who sought to fulfil a gap in medical provision when there was neither the political will nor budget to resource it from statutory funding. Guided by the principle embedded in British society since the mid-twentieth century — that medicine should be free at the point of delivery — the charity was enabled by the much older tradition of philanthropy.

So, in answering the question about the kind of society we want to see, it would seem appropriate to consider what the experience of the COVID crisis might teach us about the nature of philanthropy. The examples given so far demonstrate that, despite the most unusual constraints, people still find ways of taking action and of giving greater meaning and value to money through the addition of their time, skills and networks. Perhaps one lesson from this crisis is that the so often misunderstood concept of philanthropy needs to be interpreted in an inclusive way, as an open system which relies upon people of very varied financial means. As Martial Paris of WISE-Philanthropy Advisors stated in the most recent Philanthropy Impact Magazine ‘You don’t need a fat wallet to be a philanthropist — philanthropy is everyone’s business’.

This matters for several reasons. If, as could so easily be interpreted from the media, philanthropy is assumed to be about extreme wealth, then this lets large segments of society off the hook. A quick glance at recent press coverage about philanthropists gives the impression of a rarified world of ‘disruptive tech billionaires’ or of celebrity — a world beyond the reach of most. A report from The Beacon Collaborative found that even people who can be defined as ‘high net worth’ consider that they may not be quite rich enough to meet a perceived threshold to give away some of their wealth. We cannot afford the perception that this is a luxury market. Whilst those people with the highest levels of wealth should certainly be encouraged to give more, this does not mean that philanthropy is their exclusive domain.

The second reason that “philanthropy is everyone’s business” is that the COVID crisis has revealed a reserve of time and money that people are willing to give away, but their good will and commitment need to be maintained. There is probably significantly greater untapped potential and good reason for charities to treat everyone as potential donors. Early tentative interest in volunteering or a modest donation can often precede increasing support over the longer term, if met with appropriate stewardship. So often the motivation for trusteeship is to give something to society, regardless of personal financial means. With the current challenges for charity funding, being open to generosity in different forms may prove a better investment than taking a narrow view of philanthropy or assuming that paying trustees is somehow in the interests of the sector.

One further reason for a broad-minded view of philanthropy is that now, more than ever, we need to be very clear about its role, and government needs to be honest about where state provision starts and stops. There are significant areas of health and medical services delivered by charities, including hospices and air ambulances, and the extent of fundraising for NHS institutions is somewhat concealed by the illusion that our health system is funded entirely by the state. So let’s give credit where it is due and acknowledge the collective value of the many people who give time, money and networks, not because they are all very rich but because they believe in a cause. And let’s invite everyone to the party so that philanthropy becomes a normal part of life in a society in which generosity is appropriately acknowledged and respected.

By: TPW member Helen Bowcock

Helen Bowcock, PhD OBE DL, is a trustee of The Hazelhurst Trust and Chair of Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex. Following an early career in information technology, Helen co-founded a software company specialising in advanced information security systems and served as a Director during a period of rapid growth and significant investment.

Following the sale of assets in the company, she co-founded The Hazelhurst Trust, a grant-making trust with a focus on education and research. She has written several reports making the case for philanthropy in the UK and was awarded an OBE for services to philanthropy in 2015. She grew up in the North East and is a graduate of Durham University. More recently she completed a PhD at the University of Kent and has served on the boards of several not-for-profit organisations in the South East, notably the University of Surrey and Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex where she is Chair.

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