Rosamund McCarthy: We're hardwired to give, and it is driven by reciprocity, not by tax relief

Our ideas about giving should include volunteering and taking part in civil society, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Philanthropy and giving are high on the government's agenda. The Philanthropy Review, chaired by Tom Hughes-Hallett, has done a great job in influencing the gains in the recent Budget.

Nonetheless, it is tempting to be sceptical about the government's motives. The sector is facing swingeing cuts and we all know in our heart of hearts that additional giving won't make up the deficit.

The debate is also impoverished by the failure to look at giving in all its manifestations. Giving should not be seen only as donations and tax relief, but also as volunteering, participation in civic society, the giving of blood and organs, and the ethical or consumer choices that we make, as well as playing fair in our tax system.

One of the real barriers to giving is not a lack of tax breaks, but the potential disconnection of donors from local communities and the reciprocity of sharing that this brings. This is particularly true among some high earners in the City, who - by choice or circumstance - give all their talents and energy to work and have little left for anyone else.

In my 30s, I lived in Cornwall with my former husband and I grew vegetables, attempted to live by a philosophy of 'elegant frugality' and was part of a community of artists. We felt rich: a simple lifestyle, freely chosen, with reciprocal community engagement, is one form of giving.

Now that I am back in London and working in the City, it is easy to get into the mindset that the more one has, the more one seems to need. Instead of being happy with what I have, I engage in daydreams or fantasies that, if only I had this or that, I would be much more fulfilled. Consequently, I carry a greater feeling of insecurity than I did when there was much greater sharing and no one had any money.

It is this feeling of insecurity or moral impoverishment - you might call it greed - that means the top 10 per cent give three times less of their income than the lowest 10 per cent. Greater tax relief for higher earners is not really tackling the root of the problem. Without connectivity to a wider community, the opportunities to share and feel empathy, to receive and hence to be able to give, are limited.

David Halpern, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, puts it another way. In a paper written for the Cabinet Office, he cites evidence that when we give to others oxytocin - the feelgood 'lust' and 'trust' hormone - is released. We are hardwired to get pleasure from giving to others. But the most intense release of pleasure is when our acts of kindness are acknowledged and reciprocated.

It is a tall order, but before the Philanthropy Review seeks further tax changes, it should work towards replenishing our moral and ethical impulses and the desire for reciprocity. Tax reliefs do not release oxytocin, but the reciprocity of community giving does.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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