Our self-image is of the UK as a generous, caring nation that more than pulls its weight on behalf of the needy on the world stage. We are, for example, one of the very few countries to reach the UN’s goal of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product dedicated to overseas development. So it comes as a shock to read in the latest Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index that we have slipped out of the global top 10 that is measured by the level of charitable donations, volunteering and "helping a stranger".
All such indexes are, of course, open to challenge. Many will blink when they see first place occupied by Burma, where neither the all-powerful army nor the country’s de facto leader, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, are currently showing the least inclination to hold out a helping hand to the minority Rohingya people in their midst.
But the index does have a purpose in suggesting a bigger narrative, with only two prosperous European nations appearing in the top 10: Ireland and the Netherlands. In tough economic times, it seems, charitable inclinations among those nations most able to give are weakening. At home, that means the generosity of the British people cannot any longer be taken for granted.
What are the implications of this for charities and trustee boards? Well, at its very simplest, we need to increase our efforts, in every way we can, to get over the message that must underpin every third sector organisation: that life isn’t all about me, me, me, but rather about others.
The imperative to "never do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself" is the so-called golden rule that runs through all the world’s great faiths. Indeed, one explanation for Burma’s position at the top of the index, it has been suggested, is its still strongly Buddhist culture. "Hurt not others," instructs the Udanavarga, a 5th century BC sacred Buddhist text, "with that which pains yourself."
Here in the west, religion is in steep decline and has been replaced for many by a more persuasive, less restrictive, secular orthodoxy. Though many of our most venerable charities have their roots in organised religion, they have developed in step with the times to embrace that prevailing pluralistic worldview. But how strongly embedded does that charitable urge remain in a changing culture? Not as strongly as we would hope and assume, I fear.
Take the example of food banks, which have grown hugely on our shores in this age of austerity. A perfect example of the flourishing of the charitable instinct, yes, but the overwhelming majority of them are run by church groups. Yet with the decline of organised religion, the structure it provided for charitable efforts is also in decline. Who is going to fill the gap? The CAF findings hint that secular alternatives might still have some distance to go to do so.
That’s one way of looking at the bigger picture. More practically, one thing every trustee can do after reading the World Giving Index is to note the signs that our proud national tradition of charitable giving has to be carefully and constantly nurtured. A charity’s greatest asset is its good name, and the sector’s greatest strength is that the public trust us more than government, politicians or business to deliver on our promises and to know what needs to happen to make things better. In every decision trustees make, therefore, this public faith must be in the forefront of our minds. For once trust is lost, as easily as over one bad decision, it takes a very long time to win it back.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years