Scepticism of philanthropists grows despite people valuing their donations, survey finds

While the majority of people agree philanthropy makes society better, almost a third of them do not believe philanthropists themselves are good for society, according to a study published today. 

The report, Philanthropy Paradox: Public Attitudes and Future Prospects for Planned Giving, produced by Beth Breeze, director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent and commissioned by the donation administration charity Prism the Gift Fund, also found that members of the public in the UK are generally reluctant to talk about their charitable giving, something which the report argues creates problems for establishing giving as a social norm. 

Research for the report consisted of 1,215 interviews with a cross-section of the UK public in November and December 2019. It found that although 83.7 per cent of respondents agreed that donations help make things better for other people and society, 30.6 per cent did not agree that philanthropists were good for society. 

And 55.2 per cent of respondents said they did not trust philanthropists to “do what is right with their donations”, the report says. 

The report says: “Whilst the fruits of philanthropy are largely unproblematic, there is growing criticism of those providing the funding.”

The study also asked participants to define the word “philanthropist” in three words.

It found that 52 per cent of responses included the words generous, kind, giving, care, helpful, charitable, humane, wealthy, rich and donor. 

About 10 per cent of all responses included reference to wealth or money, the report found, and 82 negative words, including “cheat”, “condescending”, “self-serving”, “tax-avoider”, “undemocratic” and “untrustworthy” also appeared. 

In addition, the report found that, while 72 per cent of respondents believed there was a general expectation in society to donate money to charity, only 38.8 per cent said they talked to their friends and family about charities they supported. 

“It’s worth recognising that philanthropy has long been a problematic word and concept, attracting both admiration and scepticism,” the report says. 

“But in recent years philanthropy has got increasingly caught up in the crossfire of debates about wealth and inequality, and its positive value has been affected as a result.”

The report notes that even big donors often resist describing themselves as philanthropists for fear of drawing attention to their wealth, or sounding pompous and out of touch. 

“This is an untenable situation – it does not make sense to think well of donations but not donors, nor is it sensible to continue with low levels of understanding of the existing incentives to encourage giving,” it says. 

“As we emerge from the current crisis, part of rebuilding our civic society must involve tackling problematic public perceptions in order to remove barriers to giving.

“We need to make a greater effort to better understand and address the slippage between appreciating what donations achieve and those who make the donations, and to increase efforts to educate the public on the range of available tax reliefs and appropriate vehicles for making charitable donations.”

The report concludes that there “needs to be a wider and more successful explanation of the purpose of philanthropy and the benefits it brings for donors, beneficiaries and wider society”.

It says: “Only then can we hope to continue building a stronger culture of giving in the UK.”


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