We must decide what charity stands for in the 21st century: trickle-down or real change?

Charity is an expression of people's engagement with society - the sector should remember that and stand up for it, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

After the surprise Conservative election win, the Financial Times ran the headline: "Wealthy breathe a sigh of relief at Tory victory."

The new government might think that's good news for charities, in the same way it thinks that's good news for the economy and society. It believes, after all, that trickle-down works. As the Tory MP Alan Duncan said about Labour: "The trouble is, they actually believe inequality matters." As long as the wealthy are doing well, enough will drift downwards to see everyone else right. (Leave aside that trickle-down economics was discredited in the 1980s when it only made countries in Africa poorer.)

David Cameron's big society idea hinted at the same thinking as applied to charity. As the state shrinks, people will step up and give more. It's an argument that might serve the government as we embark on another five years of even deeper cuts to welfare and service provision for those most in need, while tax cuts benefit the better off. So, good news for philanthropy? It would be nice to imagine that the wealthy, with a growing sense of social responsibility, will plug the gap and give more in response to shrinking public services for the most vulnerable. That, after all, is what we understand happens in the US: part of the American Dream is that if you make it, you give back.

Except it doesn't work like that. The evidence is that wealth creators are also wealth hoarders. Big-name philanthropists do make headlines, but they are few and far between. As a recent poll of US millionaires revealed, they intend to leave their money to their children, not to charity. Furthermore, among those who do give, the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates – dedicated as they are to the eradication of polio and malaria and other global challenges – are also few and far between.

A huge proportion of philanthropy goes towards status projects in the arts and higher education, from which the wealthy benefit most, rather than on providing for the more vulnerable where the state can't or won't provide. Besides, the wealthy represent only a modest share of the generosity of the public.

The next five years will be critical if charities are to define and assert what charity means in the 21st century. Trickle-down charity is a throwback to judgemental Victorian pity and do-gooding handouts to the "deserving poor". But recent criticism of charity campaigning, and even of food banks, suggests that is what this government thinks charity is about.

The past decade has seen charities co-opted and compromised as the sector took on more public sector delivery. Now they will see their funding and their wings clipped further. Millions of people give and volunteer because they want to make a difference in their communities and in the world. Their aspirations for change are far greater than just keeping people out of the gutter. Even cancer charities no longer just stick plasters on the symptoms but have fire in their bellies about root causes. Charity is a powerful expression of people's engagement in society and desire to see change for the better. Charities need to remember and stand up for that.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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