Peter Stanford: We can learn much from the Astors

There are still philanthropists who, like David and Bill Astor, prefer to give anonymously, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

When you are living through events, it can be hard to see them in context. For many, that task has to be postponed until a much later date - in their dotage or in their memoirs. But not always. Reading a newly published life by Jeremy Lewis of the late Observer editor and philanthropist David Astor has caused me to reflect on the changes that have occurred in our sector in the past 30 years of my involvement.

Anonymous Astor

David Astor was the son of Waldorf and Nancy Astor, famous for their home at Cliveden, and at the age of 21 inherited a huge sum of money from his paternal grandfather. The Astors, originally American and one-time owners of much of Lower Manhattan, were said to be so wealthy that when David's elder brother Bill was sent to Eton, his fellow pupils held him upside down out of a window to see if gold coins dropped out of his pockets. So paying expensive school fees doesn't prevent bullying.

David was a generous supporter of many charitable causes, notably in the realm of prison reform, where he played a significant part in both the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust. But generally he preferred to give his money anonymously, so the range and depth of his charitable giving is hard to quantify. The offer of a building, a room, a prize, a memorial window or any other such fundraising wheeze, now so commonplace among the efforts of charities to attract donors, would have caused David Astor to shudder in horror and direct his money elsewhere.

In that respect, he belonged to an earlier generation of philanthropists. There were always some who wanted public recognition for their generosity, and a small number have seen their names live on as a result. But many more gave substantial sums on the understanding that their support should go unacknowledged. David's brother Bill, for example, was cut from the same cloth. Out of his own pocket, he helped to set up what are now the Refugee Council and the Disasters Emergency Committee - but he did it privately so that his role is now largely forgotten.

Take a step back

As charitable trustees, we must encourage and support our fundraisers to explore every avenue in seeking the money our organisations so badly need to sustain our services. But there is surely a lesson in David Astor's example, if we step back from the daily helter-skelter of wooing donors.

We don't always need to start off our pitch by offering them something in return for their money. There have been and - to my certain knowledge - continue to be individuals and organisations that want no publicity, no designation of gold, silver or bronze "friends", no inscription on a plaque in the foyer. Being able to help others less fortunate can be its own reward. And if that sounds old-fashioned or naive, I make no apology.

Peter Stanford is a journalist, was a charity chair for 20 years and is now a trustee of Circles UK

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