Alliance Breakfast Club: #RoyalPhilanthropy

Amy McGoldrick

Delegates and panellists stoically shuffled in from the bitter cold and snowy street-slush into The Loft at The Club at the Ivy, to take part in an informative and insightful Breakfast Club on Royal Philanthropy.

Hosted in partnership with Philanthropy Age, the editor and managing editor of which are also the guest editors of the special feature, the panel consisted of Joanne Bladd (Managing editor, Philanthropy Age), Rob Abercrombie (Director Partnership & Programmes, The Royal Foundation) who attended in a personal capacity and Dale Cooper (Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships, Queen Rania Foundation).

‘This Alliance special feature is the product of a four-way non-profit media collaboration,’ said panel chair and Alliance editor Charles Keidan at the outset, ‘a truly global partnership.’ Philanthropy Age brought coverage from the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, De Dikke Blauwe (a Dutch philanthropy publication) brought royal philanthropy knowledge from the Netherlands, Danmarks Fonde wrote on Denmark’s royal foundations and Alliance brought in views from the UK, Thailand and Australia.

Royal philanthropy is the embodiment of privilege itself and inherently places the few above the many. Is there a case to be made that this money could have been used more effectively elsewhere?

Bladd kicked off the panel discussion, praising the special feature for ‘capturing royal philanthropy around the world beautifully’ whilst also giving her ‘more time to think on this strand of giving.’ Under-scrutinised by its very nature, royal philanthropy is a ‘heady mix of money, influence and prestige.’ Bladd rightfully pointed out that royal giving is rarely, if at all, criticised, yet there is plenty to say on how Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates choose to spend their wealth.

‘In the Middle East, royal philanthropy is seen as benign patronage, recasting privilege as benevolence,’ said Bladd. ‘Another day, another ribbon cutting.’ In the Gulf, royal philanthropy is a long-held tradition, an extension of the social contract between ruler and citizen. However, Bladd stated that this is now moving into active participation on the part of the Gulf royals. One example was the Crown Prince of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who has given $150 million to eradicate polio, using both his personal and diplomatic clout to do so. In 2017, he joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle tropical diseases. Within the UK, Bladd cited Dukes William and Harry who are pushing ahead with a high-profile campaign around mental health following in their late mother’s footsteps. ‘Princess Diana arguably did more than many others to put landmines on the global agenda’, she noted.

Yet these examples, whilst certainly laudable, are not the full story. Royal philanthropy ‘should be held up to the light,’ said Bladd. It is the embodiment of privilege itself and inherently places the few above the many. Is there a case to be made that this money could have been used more effectively elsewhere? ‘Are other charities missing out because of the swing of influence?’

In the Gulf, where the largest state-backed charities are seeded by rulers, this is a ‘form of informal tax in a region where we have no tax’. Donations to these charities are the easiest form of giving, where the bulk of funding is controlled by the state and, therefore, the royals. ‘There is a collapse between public and private giving – the question is whose voices are being heard in this process?’ Whilst there is much to celebrate about this giving, it is still opaque and needs more attention paid to this particular aspect of giving. As Gulf issues become more pressing, it is important to maintain pressure for increased transparency.

Royal funders can get access and are trusted in ways where charities can be seen to be pushing an agenda. The influential nature of a royal figure means that they are granted those hearings in good faith.

Rob Abercrombie spoke next. Relatively new to royal philanthropy, he spoke of how he felt the ‘clear potential to do good work’ noting that The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund was a great model of what can be achieved. More recently, the work the Royal Foundation is doing on mental health has had great impact, helping to drive a shift in attitudes from a ‘stiff upper lip’ to a willingness to discuss childhood trauma – all within a generation.

There are upsides to working at a royal foundation. Abercrombie noted that the sheer ‘amount of access you get to government, to do deals with other funders, to corral resources, is amazing’. He spoke about how he had worked for years on projects at other organisations yet can achieve quicker results at the Royal Foundation.

‘Public figures have soft power,’ he said. Fortunately in his case, the objectives the foundation are working on are not contentious: issues such as mental health, support for veterans and service people and putting an end to the illegal wildlife trade. ‘The difficulty is that this soft power has to operate within very narrow boundaries.’ Royals in the UK must stay away from politics and policy. Abercrombie claimed that the principals at the Royal Foundation ‘stayed above the political fray… in the appliance of power, you have to understand the interests at play. You won’t get anywhere if you push too hard against them.’

Abercrombie reflected on how his job was not inherently different to philanthropy in general; it’s all about seeking influence and leverage. ‘Bill Gates, with all his billions, can’t spend his way out of problems.’ Royal funders can get access and are trusted in ways where charities can be seen to be pushing an agenda.

The influential nature of a royal figure means that they are granted those hearings in good faith. Does this counteract in any way the criticisms of power, privilege and elitism that philanthropy receives in general? Is this not merely maintaining the system rather than changing it? Is it ‘enough’ for celebrated royal figures to give only their status and profile rather than their own money? Abercrombie responded that ‘power is easily abused, whether consciously or subconsciously. But in my opinion, it is an abuse of power not to use this power in the sector to achieve positive change.’

Dale Cooper presented last, explaining how the mission of the Queen Rania Foundation is to deepen and accelerate improvements in education both in Jordan and throughout the Arab world. Unusual for a royal foundation in that they advocate and deliver programs, their income – like that of the UK’s Royal Foundation – comes from philanthropy and fundraising.

The perception is that the Gulf is very rich. But it is also polarised, and parts of the region are suffering from extreme poverty. Cooper described a visit to a school on the border with Syria – a two apartment basement in a block of flats. 400 children were being taught there, ‘in the dark and with water halfway up their shins’. 14 million children are out of education through war and conflict, and Cooper summarised the problem with something Queen Rania had said: ‘If you think there is a problem now, look in 5-10 years’ time when this lost generation comes into adulthood’.

Giving in Jordan is part of Bedouin culture; a pillar of Islam but also a tool of statecraft. Cooper spoke of the ‘long, long tradition of philanthropy, royal philanthropy, religion and the state embedded together’. This is of course again raises valid questions of transparency, governance and also impact.

‘Because of a quirk of geology, Jordan doesn’t have the hydrocarbons that are present elsewhere in the Gulf,’ said Cooper wryly. This means Jordan is a recipient, rather than donor, nation. Their social contract is manifested through the royal family giving support and endorsement to charities and social enterprises; they also encourage the participation of the corporate sector to alleviate ‘social issues’. There is then the tacit understanding that as the government creates a more benevolent environment for business growth and opportunity, that in return corporations actively promote social responsibility.

Bladd then added that resources are stretched – ‘there is a keen sense in the wake of the Arab Spring, that companies understand that if there isn’t a stable society, there isn’t a stable anything.’

Jakob von Uexkull, Founder of the World Future Council, asked the panel whether there is a concern amongst royal philanthropists to not be seen to be doing something politically motivated. ‘Would spreading policy be of interest?’ Abercrombie responded that with regard to the relationship between royal philanthropy and policy in the UK – there isn’t one. The Royal Foundation is clear on the limits of its Principals’ constitutional role, but Abercrombie insisted that the unintended benefit is ‘creating space for policy where others can jump in’.

Seth Cochran, Founder & CEO at Operation Fistula, noted that high profile wealthy people give based on personal preferences. ‘We think of them as individuals but really they’re institutions,’ and asked how much of their philanthropic activities are personal. Abercrombie stated that like any family foundation, the personal and professional blur in ways that must be learnt to be navigated. Cooper noted how the Queen Rania Foundation have an independent board of directors based on their knowledge of education and business.

It is easy to be dazzled by the power behind royal philanthropy and ignore criticisms of the sometimes opaque nature of their work, and the legitimacy of this expression of hereditary power. That would do it a disservice.

Philanthropy consultant Juliet Valdinger asked if there was potential for royalty around the world to start collaborating together. Bladd responded that collaboration is always good, and that this might be interesting for the next generation, with possibilities for opportunities for royals to talk more about their work, although Bladd was unsure ‘how much common ground there would be in causes, except refugees and climate change.’ Leonard Stall, Editor-in-Chief at Philanthropy Age, raised the point that royal philanthropy is ‘turning on itself’ and, where once it would look externally, now Gulf royals are looking at regional issues and beginning to deal with them.

Emma Goring, Philanthropy Officer at Stroke Association, queried to what extent royal philanthropy is influenced by shifts in the policy and their external environment. Abercrombie said he had noticed ‘profound’ changes, where the royal family as an institution had to adapt with the times, work on transparency and accountability and has been influenced by the zeitgeist. Bladd cited Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Foundation, which has been changing massively to work out how to survive in a post-oil economy. The foundation has also focused on creating equal opportunities, as going forward there is a vast youth population who will need access to opportunity, said Bladd.

It is easy to be dazzled by the power behind royal philanthropy and ignore criticisms of the sometimes opaque nature of their work, and the legitimacy of this expression of hereditary power. That would do it a disservice. With royal foundations around the world recognising the value of transparency, it is a good time to wonder what genuine contributions can be made through this giving, and how it can do better.

Amy McGoldrick is the Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine.

To watch the full recording of the panel debate, click below.


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