Challenging cynicism about philanthropy


Angela Kail and NPC


Watching the coverage of people discussing their decision on how to vote in the EU referendum, there is a repeated theme of not trusting people, especially ‘experts’. If anyone says anything that you disagree with, the easy rebuttal is to question his or her motives.

The Financial Times was accused of bias because it sells a lot of copies to people who work in the EU bodies. Nigel Farage said that the IFS could not be trusted because of the funding it receives from the UK government and the EU.

So much cynicism. The terrible murder of MP Jo Cox last week has made people ask how such an attitude can be challenged.

Since the expenses scandal in 2009, if not before, the image of MPs as public servants has gone out of the window, replaced by an assumption that they are all ‘in it for themselves’.

And this isn’t confined to MPs: philanthropists’ motives have long been distrusted. Zuckerberg’s announcement that he was giving $45bn to charity was called a ‘big joke’ by the economist Thomas Piketty. In the UK, donors to academy schools have been accused of donating to make money out of privatising schools. The Giving Pledge, which was designed by Bill Gates to encourage others to give, was accused by Forbes of being a tax scheme or a publicity stunt.

Other people assume that the very rich give because of guilt—something George Soros has refuted absolutely: ‘I’m not doing my philanthropic work, out of any kind of guilt, or any need to create good public relations. I’m doing it because I can afford to do it, and I believe in it.’ Repeated research into the motivations of donors suggests exactly this: givers are driven to help a cause that they care about and want to help.

If we can agree that it’s time to take stock of the level of mistrust in our general conversation, let’s hope this can extend to how we talk about philanthropy.

Peer effects are very important in philanthropy—at NPC we often talk about how the UK needs a culture where it is normal to give. But we will not get there if every time a philanthropist talks publicly about his or her giving, they are subject to criticism about showing off, trying to buy favour, or wanting to off-set bad practice elsewhere. The dislike harboured by some people towards the rich seems to spill over into disliking their philanthropy, too.

We may dislike a world in which there are such inequalities in wealth, but the answer has to be to work for a more equal world, rather than to assume that people who give have an ulterior motive.

A more trusting environment around people’s motives could improve the quantity and the quality of philanthropy in this country. The distrustful narrative around philanthropy surely deters donors from giving; it will also stop them talking about their philanthropy. We could have a much richer, more truthful discourse about philanthropy if there wasn’t this easy jump to distrust.

We could help philanthropists improve by being much more open about the difficulties and problems that others have faced. We could start to generate a culture where it is normal for people to talk about what they give to—allowing them to share ideas and collaborate. A more open spirit for philanthropy could allow some of the large collaborations that we have seen in the US.

There are plenty of legitimate concerns about philanthropy—does it give too much power over services to a few individuals or institutions, for example; are people spending money on interventions with little evidence for success?

But assumptions about bad intentions don’t get us much closer to those debates. We can move onto trying to make our philanthropy more effective if we assume that people are giving because they want to make the world better. The last thing we need is misandry getting in the way of a decent giving culture.

Angela Kail is head of funders team at NPC.

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