Opinion: It's no joke: we need rich philanthropists

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support

In a lift lobby in Toronto I bumped into Harvey McKinnon, a fundraising guru from Vancouver. By volume, Harvey is one of the world's great jokers - he claims to know 22,000 jokes. When I asked how he knew, he told me he has written them all down.

I can only remember a couple of jokes at a time, so I asked him if he knew the Pirate Joke ("So this pirate goes into a bar and asks for a pint ..."). "Which one?" he replied, and told me six in a row that made me hyperventilate before I could splutter out mine. It took us 20 minutes to get into a lift. Harvey made his name fundraising from the rich and now teaches his techniques, including a lot of jokes.

Bill Gates told a conference that he would rather not be the world's richest man; but he's also one of the greatest philanthropists of all time. One of my contemporaries retired at 50 as a zillionaire. "I had no idea money would be such a burden," he told me. "I spend two days a week with advisers just managing the money and the tax. Then there are the endless requests from charities and trying to sort out which of those are worthwhile. If it was just me I wouldn't worry, but I've got my kids and their kids to think about."

Then there's security: step inside his modest house and you're in a fortress, which keeps him and his family in, just as much as it keeps malefactors out. Maybe living on a salary, a mortgage and bank loans has hidden benefits after all.

A wealthy American acquaintance reacted defensively to a dinner table conversation about the iniquities of private wealth and the selfishness of the rich. "There are rich and poor, and I don't feel too good about poor people," he said. "But most of this money has to come back into society. There's nowhere else for it to go. Either it will be paid as tax, or it will be used as capital that creates employment, or it will become charitable gifts."

Of course, it doesn't feel like that to people living on handouts on either side of the Atlantic.

Here is one of the many paradoxes about the voluntary sector. We spend much of our time and effort challenging inequality and trying to raise standards of life for the poorest by redistributing resources.

We don't produce much - so, as well as the state, we depend on the rich to help us to carry out our subversive, often radical, sometimes revolutionary mission.

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