News in focus: Why Wearside's poor are the most generous of all

When he was a boy, Peter Brown did a paper round that took in the swanky part of Sunderland where the footballers lived, and a nearby decrepit, run-down council estate.

“At Christmas I’d get more tips from the poor area,” says Peter, who now volunteers in a charity shop in the city. “The footballers hardly gave me a thing.” Peter’s experience is typical of giving in Britain. According to the Giving Campaign, the poorest fifth of the population donate, on average, 3 per cent of household expenditure to charity, while the richest fifth give 0.7 per cent.

And nowhere are the masses more generous than in Peter’s home city. This summer, the Giving Campaign named Sunderland top in Britain for charitable donations, ahead of Blackpool, Motherwell, Dundee and Newcastle. London, Harrow, Twickenham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Ilford were shamed as the most miserly.

Sunderland folk don’t see many league tables that place them ahead of Newcastle, so they’re relishing this one.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says mayor Jim Scott. “There’s a community spirit here that has never died. I was always taught that if you see someone down you help them back up again. Down south people turn and walk away.”

In his shipyard days, Scott, 67, gave tuppence from his wages to charity. He gives considerably more now to local charities the Grace House Children’s Hospice and the Lee Sykes Centre for Conductive Education, which are his chosen charities of the year. Last year’s mayoral appeal raised more than £140,000.

The mayoral suite is full of memorabilia associated with the city’s football club whose charitable arm, the Sunderland AFC Foundation, last year raised more than £300,000 for local educational initiatives.

Football has become the focus of local pride, giving the foundation a unique emotive pull. That Sunderland’s foundation, which employs 70 people, is so vibrant, suggests that when Wearsiders give, they are supporting the city as a whole, as well as a particular cause.

“The Jarrow March, the war, the poverty and unemployment of the 1970s, and the Thatcher era left an indelible mark on the area,” says George Hepburn, chief executive of the Community Foundation serving Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, which distributed grants totalling £25m last year.

“There’s a real determination to put that right. People have a greater sense of identity here than in any other part of the country.”

But while local people are justifiably proud of their reputation, Sunderland’s number one ranking sends out a worrying message for the voluntary sector as a whole. It doesn’t bode well if the richer people get, the stingier they become.

In May, the Giving Campaign unveiled a vision of a voluntary sector land of milk and honey 10 years from now where charitable donations had doubled from their current level. It said the key to making this happen was teasing the rich out of their miserly ways.

“The wealthy are totally reactive,” says the Giving Campaign’s former chairman Joel Joffe. “They see terrible starvation in Africa and they send a cheque for £1,000. It should be £10,000 or £100,000.”

Joffe says the well-off need to plan their giving more. Unfortunately, the Giving Campaign won’t be around to kick them in the right direction. It vanished this summer after its three-year term expired, leaving no one organisation solely committed to promoting a change in our giving culture.

Theresa Lloyd, author of A Guide to Giving, says the issue is more complicated than the Giving Campaign survey claims. “Wealthier people tend to give lump sums and make it tax efficient,” she says.

Also, the charitable trusts established by north-east philanthropists such as Margaret Barbour and Tom Cowie show contrasting the generous poor with the grasping rich is crude and unhelpful. Lloyd says we should look to the US, rather than focusing on regional or class divides here. “Tax incentives make it easier for the rich to give in the US,” she says.

But she does draw one parallel between philanthropists in the US and in the north-east. “The US is an immigrant community and there are many people who want to give something back,” she says. “People in the north-east also have an enormous sense of community and of putting money back.”

Lloyd says financial advisers should encourage clients to think more about giving to charity. If more thought about it, more might do it. But until a successor to the Giving Campaign is found, charities will continue to rely on the most needy for their survival. See Newsmaker, p14

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