Editorial: Can we direct philanthropy?

It will not be easy to align major charitable donations with social need, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

One of the concluding remarks in Philanthropy and a Better Society, published last week by the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, is about responsible governance of philanthropic resources. It says: "The need for accountability and transparency in philanthropic decision-making will continue to grow in importance, so that the public can see, debate and influence the direction of private philanthropy."

This is a rather startling proposition that runs counter to the way philanthropists tend to behave. They have a habit of deciding for themselves, in complex, subjective ways, what causes they give to. Some are hobbyists - "I just love old railways"; some deliberately avoid meeting social needs they believe ought to be publicly funded.

But the CGAP study has been prompted by the fact that public spending is continuing to fall and the government, as part of its big society agenda, is looking to the new generation of philanthropists to help fill the gap. Ministers have called for greater donations to the arts, and it's implicit that donations should fill other social needs as the state recedes.

This brings us back to the dilemma identified by John Stuart Mill in 1848 and quoted in John Mohan's contribution to the study: "Charity lavishes its bounty in one place and leaves people to starve in another." Another contributor cites an American academic's view that philanthropy reaches its beneficiaries by "a haphazard combination of luck, charisma and razzmatazz".

It's not easy to see what changes could be made so that private philanthropy would be more effectively aligned with social need. Some big givers do concentrate on causes such as poverty and homelessness, but many are more tempted by getting their name on a new wing at the Tate galleries.

Philanthropists can't be told what to do. They can be steered and informed, perhaps, but even that is likely to be problematic. The CGAP study suggests that expanding community foundations might be a fruitful future way of linking donors more closely to priority causes in their local areas.

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