There is no typical career journey in philanthropy. Routes into and out of leadership roles are many and varied. I was reminded of that when I spoke recently to Rhodri Davies’s Philanthropisms podcast about my own path from recovering foundation director to executive editor of Alliance magazine – and everything I did in between.
I started out working for British Jewish philanthropist Trevor Pears in 2003/4 in what seems like another epoch as he embarked on his own remarkable philanthropic journey. We achieved a lot together but I’ve also written about my personal disappointments and setbacks in our work on Israel-Palestine.
In Rhodri’s podcast, I discussed what’s next for philanthropy and what I’d like to see change taking the longer view afforded by my own career in philanthropy.
I outlined three areas which are ripe for change at least in the UK and perhaps elsewhere too:
- A requirement for Foundations and Donor Advised Funds to pay out an annual proportion of their assets is already required in countries like the US, Canada and Australia. As I mention in the podcast, foundation assets have significantly increased over the last two years just as the Covid pandemic has pushed many working families into poverty. A responsibility for foundations to spend a minimum amount annually would be a powerful message to wider society that philanthropy is not just committed to helping but required to do so.
- Related to this, I hope we see more progressive foundations joining the calls of Patriotic Millionaires advocating for a wealth tax as part of their philanthropic work. Other philanthropic responses to wealth inequality are welcome too but committing to disclosing and paying more tax on wealth seems like a critical first step.
- An acceleration of transparency standards by requiring major foundations and donors (and recipient charities) to publish their gift and grants agreements and background correspondence with charities, especially when making large grants to prestigious arts and educational institutions.
On the latter point, to take one example, it seems unacceptable that the Imperial War Museum refuses to disclose their gift agreement with Roman Abramovich to fund its galleries despite the public interest in what was agreed. Its spokesperson is quoted in The Guardian newspaper saying: ‘As this was a private donation, IWM is not disclosing the amount donated by Mr Abramovich to the new galleries.’
Similar questions might reasonably be asked of Leonard Blavatnik, whose funding established Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. Or of the Genesis Philanthropy Group (which handles the philanthropy of currently sanctioned Russian oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven) funding of JW3, a community centre in London.
The grants and gifts from elite philanthropists and foundations to major arts and higher educational institutions deserve far greater scrutiny because the current secrecy and lack of transparency are both against the public interest and damage the reputation of philanthropy.
Aside from that, I took the opportunity to highlight a couple of areas away from the well-trodden philanthropy track where I’d like to see more funding directed. That includes support for local and non-profit media and – a hill I’d be willing to die on – support for a proper push to secure voting rights for 16 and 17 -year-olds. As young people have been significantly disadvantaged by climate change, Covid and – in the UK context – Brexit, I think such an intervention would be timely and would go a long way to enhance democratic engagement and civic participation at a time when we really need it.
Charles Keidan is Executive Editor of Alliance magazine.