Interview: Gina Miller

The philanthropist stands by her view that there are too many 'careerists' in the voluntary sector and is adamant that charities should listen more to the public

Gina Miller
Gina Miller

Gina Miller incurred the wrath of the sector with her recent comments about charity 'careerists', more interested in climbing the salary ladder than in the cause, and with her suggestion for a cap on the amount charities spend on running costs and administration.

But the founder and chair of Miller Philanthropy, a grant-making foundation, remains resolute in her belief that the sector needs a shake-up. She says there is a need for greater transparency on how charities spend donations and she has been pressing the Charity Commission to look into making charity accounts more uniform.

Miller is a thoroughly modern philanthropist, one of a string of wealthy entrepreneurs who have in recent years decided to try to make a difference by getting personally involved, demanding demonstrable results and taking issue with traditional charities. During her career, she has launched two marketing companies and founded the wealth-management company SCM Private with Alan, her husband, who made a multi-million-pound fortune in hedge funds.

In this interview she turns her attention to Gift Aid, saying donors should be told whether the tax relief will be used for administration costs or front-line charitable work. "It's public money," she says. "If you tick the box and think the money is going toward the charity's work, but the charity is going to spend it on admin, I don't think that's right."

Her previous criticism of charities for paying six-figure salaries and creating business-like structures that can "go on indefinitely" instead of solving specific problems sparked a strong reaction, including several emails and telephone calls. "My response was 'if you are doing a good job, why are you so angry?'" she says. "I was talking about a minority of charities, but many people got upset."

Miller says she has no issue with people earning "very good salaries" in the sector, but is clear about what constitutes too much: "I have a problem with people earning £300,000 to £400,000 as a chief executive, or having massive offices with 17 people in the fundraising department. I think there are excesses that need to be looked at, even if it's in a minority of charities.

"The charity community is so defensive that it will not have these discussions," she says. "It is as if the third sector is the business of angels and you must not question it."

According to its website, Miller Philanthropy carries out in-depth due diligence before it invests in a charity or project; benchmarks are mutually agreed and achievements are measured against them. "We seek to continually assess and justify our investment and protect the generosity of our donors and philanthropists," it says. Miller adds that the charities it supports are monitored and given support, if needed, in areas such as design, marketing and events.

The foundation was launched in 2009 to support small, "efficient" community charities, which Miller felt were in danger of disappearing in the economic downturn. Her concerns about the way big charities operate can be traced to her early experience with the foundation. It stopped using its application process after being overwhelmed by requests, many from bigger charities whose fundraising teams submitted multiple applications. "This was one of the things that made me feel uncomfortable," she says.

Another aim of the foundation is to bring small community charities into partnership with high net-worth individuals and big business. She argues that too many corporate partnerships are organised through the marketing departments of big charities and that many charity events seem to be about securing celebrity attendees. "It is about PR, not philanthropy," she says.

She believes society should revert to "the Victorian view of philanthropy, where the wealthy ensured social mobility and social justice", and contends that it is time for the wealthy to step in to provide funding where the government cannot. "I think corporates have been quite irresponsible," she says. "We need benevolent capitalism."

Miller suggests that every successful business should give at least 1 per cent of its profits to charity each year - "not to buying tables at charity dinners, but to a pot that goes to community charities". She says the Millers give between 25 and 50 per cent of their annual income.

Although the sector has been dismissive of her comments, Miller believes a section of the wider public shares her concerns and, judging by the response she's had, would like to see chief executives stripped of six-figure salaries and charities run by volunteers.

"There has been a lot of mud-slinging, but it won't put me off," she says. "The sector will be in a bad place if we don't get more people engaged. Those working in charities should read what the public are saying. That is the best donor research, and all is not well."

CV:

2012: Founder, the Goodwill Exchange
2012: Initiator, True and Fair Campaign
2010: Founder, the No 1 Ladies Investment Club
2009: Founder, Miller Philanthropy
2009: Founding partner, SCM Private
2007: Founding partner, Leigh Cottage Childcare Nursery
2004: Founder, Wilde Marketing Consultancy
1992: Founder, SWAY Marketing
1989: BMW Fleet Division, marketing and events

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