Opinion: Give the gift of giving and encourage philanthropy

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

The news that educational toys are no more valuable to young children than old mobile phones and computers is hardly startling (The Times, 14 November).

Lydia Plowman, professor of education at the University of Stirling, is clear that parents should stop feeling pressurised into buying these expensive playthings for children.

With Christmas just around the corner, however, this should give certain charities pause for thought, particularly those that offer 'beneficiary gifts', such as the gift of a cow or a goat to a family in the developing world.

If these charities could persuade parents to give their children a cow or a goat - and their old mobile phone - and tie that together with an educational move towards giving as a habit, that would make a huge difference to how we think about charitable giving in this country.

Indeed, a large section of the not-for-profit sector might want to join forces on this. Only a month ago, we read in Third Sector (4 October) about Charles Handy's new book The New Philanthropists. Handy said that a group of senior people from the voluntary sector were not as excited about the book as they might have been; they thought these new philanthropists were rocking the boat. But the sorts of people who become these new philanthropists would regard themselves as wimps if they did not rock a few boats, and some of those senior people ought to realise that quite a few boats need rocking. The key point of the book, however, is that there is a new generation of people who are driven by the idea they want to give something back and are doing so in a variety of imaginative ways. And one of the most imaginative giving schemes to have come out of the voluntary sector in years is that of giving goats and cows to families in Africa and elsewhere.

If we could combine the two kinds of thinking and encourage children to take part in beneficiary giving as a form of education to encourage them to become the next generation of new philanthropists, it could be very exciting.

But there is a missing link here. We all recognise that children (and adults) are given too much, and that it probably is not good for them.

We need to develop a way in which children can be more involved in the families to whom cows and goats are given, encouraged to give a little more to those same families - chickens or schoolbooks - on every birthday, and be given something small for themselves alongside the gift they make - or that is made on their behalf - each time.

The sector needs to latch on to the news about toys, think through its implications for charitable giving by children or on children's behalf and then work out how it would like to encourage the next generation of new philanthropists. Instead of fearing that they might rock the boat, the sector should welcome them with open arms. New energy is always a good thing for the sector, and we should be encouraging it.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- Professor Plowman has spent two years studying the impact of new technology on young children and concluded that the best feature of high-tech toys is that they can be used in role play, such as pretending to be in an office or ordering their shopping online. But the household computer would be just as good, she said.

- Sales of educational electronic toys rose by 48 per cent in 2004. The best seller this Christmas is tipped by the Toy Retailers Association to be the VSmile Baby Infant Development System at £39.99. Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield is conducting an investigation into the effect of electronic games on children.

- Management writer Charles Handy said of the philanthropists interviewed in his new book that they were the spearhead of a new breed of people. "They are by definition disruptive forces," he said. "They are high-involvement people who see their mission as making a difference."

- Charities are preparing for a surge in demand for beneficiary gifts this Christmas. ActionAid is the latest international development agency to enter the market, and Oxfam has expanded its scheme. It has introduced sex education packs and cut the availability of goats after providing 200,000 in less than three years.

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