Neo-colonial philanthropy in the UK


Fozia Irfan


Philanthropic foundations are at a critical crossroads, facing greater scrutiny and questions in relation to how they are addressing racial injustice. But philanthropy does not function in isolation from historical, social or political influences.

What has not been as evident is a reckoning with the philanthropic history of the formation and wealth of many foundations or a deeper conversation as to the source of the inequality of many communities within the UK.  Two key elements still need to be examined. Firstly, understanding how Victorian concepts of charity, deserving or undeserving poor and ‘race’, imbued philanthropy with a lens that still exists today. Secondly, recognition that the UK’s involvement in colonialism and slavery, directly led to the disadvantage and discrimination faced by many communities and that this disadvantage continues to date.

Many private foundations in the UK were built on a Victorian paternalistic model of gracious benefactor and grateful beneficiary and against the historical context of empire-building, slavery and colonialism which embedded ideas about ‘race’ within philanthropy.  There was also a concerted broader effort known as colonial or missionary philanthropy which concerned itself on the face of it with the abolition of slavery but had a deeper agenda of the expansion of Christian missionary work in Africa, India and other colonies. This particular movement not only infantilised subjects but further created a sense of ownership or possession of those objects of pity. Major describes a ‘pornography of pain’ spread by key figures such as Wilberforce and Charles Grant which depicted Indians for example, as depraved, immoral and incapable of administration in order to elicit support for missionary work there[1].

Therefore, concepts of race and ethnicity during this time were primarily shaped through the lens of slavery and colonialism.  Victorian attitudes to race became linked with ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor[2]. Characteristics such as laziness, depravity and anarchy which were associated with the undeserving poor were explicitly linked to slaves. Furthermore, the delineation between the deserving and undeserving poor connected with these formulations of race position subjects of colonies inequitably within this charitable paradigm and reinforce stereotypes.

With such strong narratives in relation to race and ethnicity embedded within the history of philanthropy in the UK, it is pertinent to consider whether this contextual history is acknowledged within the operation of philanthropy today.

One important initiative which does recognise the place of historical context is the movement to ‘decolonise wealth’ led by the author and philanthropy expert Edgar Villaneuva[3]. Describing philanthropic Foundations as ‘racism in institutional form ..(and) ..colonialism in the empire’s new clothes’, Villaneuva rallies the sector to recognise the white supremacist culture at its core and take fundamental steps to dismantle the philanthropic structures built on this. In addition, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in their ‘Dismantling Racism’ workbook demonstrate the very visible indicators of ‘neo-colonial’ social architecture in organisations,  still apparent today in many foundations such as paternalism, othering of communities, power-hoarding and failure to recognise structural racism[4].

The second aspect of colonialism that is not highlighted within UK philanthropy is the connection between colonisation of countries and racial disparities which exist today. Discussions about racial inequality rarely focus on the historical context of UK colonialism as a precursor to the discrimination and inequalities faced by communities from those former colonies, which settled in this country. Academics have clearly articulated the direct trajectory between the history of the former colonies becoming part of the Commonwealth, the labour shortages in the UK in the 1950s onwards, and the invitation for Commonwealth communities to come to the UK. On arrival into the UK however, they were met with explicit structural and personal discrimination, leading to unequal opportunities and outcomes, which continue to exist today.

One thing is clear, that without a deep examination of the historical context in which many foundations in the UK were founded and an acknowledgement of how history lies at the heart of the racial disparities faced by many communities, many philanthropic efforts to redress the balance will remain superficial. In addition, understanding how neo-colonial social architecture may still be inherent within grantmaking and funding distribution processes and practices are critical to ensuring that we are able to address racial injustice meaningfully, rather than inadvertently perpetuating racial inequality through our own neo-colonial philanthropy.

Fozia Irfan is the Founder of the DEI Coalition of Funders.

This article is an abridged version of a piece originally published in the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing in October 2021.


  1. ^ Major, A. (2012) Slavery, Abolotionism and Empire in India 1772-1843. Liverpool University Press.
  2. ^ Shilliam, R. (2018) Race and the Underserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing.
  3. ^ Villanueva, E. (2018) Decolonizing Wealth. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. p.3.
  4. ^ Jones, K. and Okun, T. (2018) White Supremacy Culture, [Online]. Available at

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