Ian MacQuillin: Who made us the philanthropy police?

We shouldn't slag off the very rich for not giving away a bigger proportion of their wealth, but provide them with better reasons for doing

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Every year I give about 0.1 per cent of my personal wealth to charity. This is a bit of a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation, but it’s in the ballpark.

Pathetic, isn’t?

Anyone who gives so little of their personal wealth away deserves to have society’s opprobrium heaped upon them.

I know this to be true, because Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg recently gave $25m (£20m) to funding coronavirus research and the data scientist Mona Chalabi posted on social media a symbolic representation of Zuckerberg’s donation in which she could barely disguise her contempt. In fact, her contempt was deliberate.

Zuckerberg’s donation numbers in the millions, whereas mine numbers in the hundreds. Bu, Zuckerberg’s donation is, proportionally, three times what mine is. So I wonder what levels of contempt Chalabi would have for my paltry and pathetic levels of charitable giving?

But of course the contempt that some people – charity types and fundraisers included – have for those who are perceived not to have given enough is reserved typically for a certain type of person: those who are very rich. Which does not include me.

At my level of individual giving, donor-centred fundraising best practice would have it that I am praised for doing whatever I can. My gift, whatever it is, is fabulous, transformative and welcome. Well done me!

But once a donor’s wealth reaches a particular level that philosophy breaks down (at least, it appears to break down for some people). At a certain level of wealth we should express not praise and gratitude, but criticism for not having given more, even if the money is a staggering $25m.

The same thing happened last week: the author JK Rowling gave £1m to non-Covid charities and she’s been criticised in fundraising circles because it’s a tiny amount of her personal wealth.

All of this is problematic for several reasons.

Personal wealth does not mean readily available cash. I’ve no idea how much cash Mark Zuckerberg could liquidate at short notice. Obviously it’s way more than $25m, but it’s not his entire personal fortune, which is bound up in investments and property.

Let’s put my annual giving in perspective. It’s roughly 1.6 per cent of my annual income. Not totally fantastic, but not bad. But if you take out all my fixed costs, such as mortgage and utility bills, it’s actually about 7.33 per cent of my disposable income. That’s not too shabby.

Proportions and percentages are a little misleading. So let’s focus on absolutes. $25m is a hell of a lot of money. So is £1m. Think what can be done with that. But rather than celebrate absolute amounts, we prefer to dwell on the proportion and use that as a stick with which to beat them for not having done more.

What’s the rationale for switching from praise to criticism once donors reach a certain high level of wealth? Who made us the philanthropy police? What gives us the right to pronounce on someone’s charitable giving and decide whether it is acceptable or unacceptable, moral or without moral worth?

And if we reserve ourselves the right to criticise people for not giving more than they could have done, why not criticise everyone who gives? Just about everyone could give more than they do.

Could I upgrade my direct debits by a couple of quid each? Of course I could.

But I choose not to, and the reasons I choose not to are mine, and mine alone. No one has the right to criticise me for not giving more. That’s because there is no duty to give anything at all.

Charitable giving is a supererogatory act, which literally means that it goes beyond duty. It means we can be praised for it (which is what donor-centred fundraising does), but not criticised if we do not. Even if your personal wealth is zillions, you’ve done nothing wrong if you give nothing and can’t be criticised for it. But we can praise donors for what they do: and, come on, it’s $25m!

So rather than slag people off for not having given more, provide them with better reasons and motives to make bigger gifts, then praise them when they do. That’s the essence of donor-centred fundraising.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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