Peter Stanford: We need more Rockefellers

Very wealthy philanthropists who are prepared to give their fortunes away in death are, despite the naysayers, extremely valuable

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

How much money is enough? If you are a trustee of a service-providing charity, especially in the current financial climate, the answer is inevitably "there is never enough", followed swiftly by "if only we could find an extra £xxx…" It’s the perpetual worry that keeps us all on our toes in the charity world. So much so that I can’t quite imagine what it would be like if money was no object.

David and Peggy Rockefeller could do just that, thanks to his family fortune from the oil business. But it didn’t make them complacent. Great wealth was something, ultimately, that they wanted to share, not just with their descendants, but more much widely. A year after the death of this US patriarch, and more than 20 years since his wife passed on, we witnessed the sale of their private art collection, built up over their lifetimes, at Christie’s in New York for something close to $1bn. All proceeds will go to charitable causes.

"Good on them," was my instant reaction when I heard the news, quickly followed by "if only there were more like them". But in subsequent discussions with others in our sector, trustees and executives among them, I’ve heard more conflicted reactions to such largesse. Some, for example, have noted that the Rockefeller dynasty can afford to be so generous without much pain, that the next generations of it will hardly be feeling the pinch as a result, and point to the source of that fortune and the damage it has inflicted on our planet.

Others, though, hold up such donors who give it all away – and their number include the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Gordon and the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop – as examples for others to follow. I’ve always been partial, I should confess, to those philanthropists who wish to remain anonymous as donors. It brings a clarity to the relationship they enter into with the charities of their choice.

But if $1bn’s worth of art comes onto the open market – the highest grossing sale of a single-owner art collection at auction ever, it has been reported – then I suppose anonymity is hard to maintain.

So, on reflection, I would prefer still to trumpet their example as a decidedly counter-cultural sign in our troubled times. In our own society, the statistics point pretty decisively to the conclusion that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Worse, greed, the accumulation of vast wealth beyond what any individual or their dependants can reasonably require, and a corresponding hard-heartedness when it comes to the unfulfilled but basic human needs of others less fortunate, are all on the rise. Witness the stubborn resistance to even modest tax rises to lift essential public services out of a state of perpetual make-do-and-mend. If we had a just and equitable taxation system, philanthropists might not even make such headlines.

Instead, at the same time as waiting lists for operations are lengthening and legal aid has been cut so much it is virtually a thing of the past, our society seems to delight in becoming ever more materialistic – in its taste, for example, for the sort of luxury cars that cost the most obscene amounts of money, but are now clogging even down-at-heel suburban streets like my own in a way that I cannot ever remember witnessing before.

Then there is that steady drip-drip-drip of propaganda fed to us from all sides that we can only know our worth by our possessions. One national newspaper has a glossy supplement that unashamedly is titled Money and How to Spend It. It purports to offer "worldly pleasures". I’ve never seen an article in there about the worldly pleasure of philanthropy.

Perhaps it was always thus. Perhaps it is part of human nature to accumulate. In which case, that is why we need role models, like David and Peggy Rockefeller, who do the opposite. Arguably, we need them now more than ever. So, along with every other trustee out there, I’m secretly hoping that someone with the Rockefeller spirit has taken a shine to my favoured causes.

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