Helen Wadham: "Rich donors are just like you and me"

They give to causes that matter to them, says the associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

Helen Wadham
Helen Wadham

Lord Sainsbury recently became the first Brit to give more than £1bn to charity, according to the Sunday Times Giving Index. The combined wealth of the 1,000 multi-millionaires on the list dropped by 37 per cent in 2009, but the value of their donations fell by only 11.5 per cent.

This confirms recent research by the Economist Intelligence Unit that suggests that the 'ultra-rich' plan to maintain or increase their giving levels.

Much as we might all want a piece of that particular action, only 133 charities receive seven-figure donations, according to the Coutts Million Pound Donors Report. So how might more charities channel some of this wealth to the people and causes they work with?

Perhaps they should remember that rich people are just like you and me. One City donor told me about the time a famous actor called to solicit his support. "I thought it was a friend messing about," he said - just like any of us would.

Like anyone else, rich people give to causes they feel passionate about. This donor went on to make a substantial donation, impressed by what he called the "compelling vision" of an unusual arts project. And people who have built their own fortune are likely to be even more convinced than the rest of us by evidence of efficiency.

The recession has affected how rich people - like everyone else - feel about the world and their place in it. According to the EIU, they are reassessing what they really value, which perhaps explains why giving levels have dropped less steeply than income.

It's time to shift from hosting galas to reaching out to key supporters. As writer and management consultant Peter Drucker urged, we should be converting donors into contributors.

One man who has taken this approach is Richard Harvey, chair of PZ Cussons and former chief executive of insurance giant Aviva, who made the link between the grass-roots approach of development charity Concern Universal and his own experience of running a customer-focused business. The commitment and contacts he has brought to his role of 'volunteer advocate' go significantly beyond any financial contribution.

An Indian proverb says "all that is not given is lost". And a recent study in Science magazine found money can indeed buy you happiness - if you give it away. We owe it to the people we serve to help the wealthier members of society do just that.

FACT FILE - MAJOR DONORS

- According to the EIU's The New World of Wealth, the number of individuals with investable assets in excess of more than $30m fell by 24.6 per cent during 2008 to 78,000.

- The Million Pound Donors Report, published by Coutts and the University of Kent's Centre for Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice, analyses data on donations worth £1m or more. It says 189 donations were made in 2008 by 102 donors to 153 organisations.

- The collective value of these donations fell by 13 per cent compared with 2007. This is consistent with a decline in overall giving of 11 per cent, reported by the Charities Aid Foundation.

An increase in anonymous and low-profile giving has been attributed to a reluctance to flaunt wealth and a desire to avoid offending charities that have been dropped.

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