It’s that time of year when every blogger and column writer offers predictions for the coming year or a wish list or perhaps new year’s resolutions. I’ll pass on the new year’s resolutions and am wary about predictions, but I would like to offer a thought for 2012 that is somewhere between a wish and a prediction arising from the current state of the world.
We are all familiar with the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor – dating from the 16th century and the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Since the early 20th century progressives like Joseph Rowntree and Beatrice and Sidney Webb have rejected this distinction, arguing that poverty is not a category that defines a person but a condition into which anyone can fall. But somehow it always rears its ugly head again. In harsh economic times, with public spending cuts, increasing unemployment and growing pressure on welfare benefits, it is particularly likely to come to the fore, though often couched in new terms.
The wealthy, on the other hand, have always been assumed to be deserving, having made their fortunes through their own creativity and hard labours, and in any case imposing no burden on the state. But now we are beginning to see a similar concept of being ‘undeserving’ creeping in for the wealthy, with Occupy Wall Street standing up for the 99 per cent and the bankers blazing the trail as the mega-rich who have done little to deserve their vast wealth while bringing the global economy to its knees.
Where does this leave philanthropy? The rationale behind donors’ minimal accountability has always been that philanthropy is a voluntary gift of people’s hard-earned and well-deserved wealth. Yes, they get a tax break, but they’re still spending their own money. But if the rich can be seen as undeserving, there may come to be more questioning of their right to spend their money as they please and more pressure for philanthropy to be accountable. In his article ‘Gorillas in the midst’ in the December issue of Alliance, Jacob Harold sets out four ‘behaviours’ which together he terms the ‘new governance bargain’: transparency, measuring multiple bottom lines, proactive engagement with stakeholders, and collaboration. ‘By fulfilling their part in this new, implicit arrangement,’ he says, ‘organizations can retain permission from society to operate without excessive regulatory constraints.’
Permission from society to operate may be less readily granted in 2012 and in the years of austerity likely looming ahead. I always feel a bit uneasy when I hear people talking about how much fun philanthropy is and what a marvellous way it is of bringing the family together. If it is fun and brings families together, all well and good, but as times get harder I think the public, the 99 per cent, are going to want to hear more about the rich discharging their responsibility towards society, and the pressure for accountability will be greater. And with poverty and inequality on the increase, there may also be pressure for the rich through philanthropy to do something directly to remedy this. According to a recent report from the Foundation Center social justice funding has been particularly hard hit by the recession. Let’s hope this will turn around in 2012!
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance magazine.
Latest from Alliance will be taking a break now, but we’ll be back at the beginning of January. Our best wishes for the holidays and for a great 2012 to all our readers and contributors.