Ours is a country recovering from crises in trust. Sometimes the events of recent years have seemed more grand opera than reality. First, the executive took us to war on a false prospectus. Then too many legislators were exposed as rifling in the expenses till, while the other hand wagged its authoritarian forefinger at the poor over benefits’ ‘scrounging’ and law and order. Even the bank managers proved not to be trustworthy with their roulette wheels in the back rooms of the City. Then newspapers, relied on to reveal the failings of other institutions, were found to indulge in unethical and illegal surveillance on a scale only trumped by the secret state.
So as these great houses of power and influence struggle to regain moral authority, it must be even more important that we in the third sector work as hard as we can to practise what we preach and live our values. For charities and NGOs, this requires obvious, constant and anxious self-examination on everything from funding sources to employment practice; policy formulation to advocacy style. And funders are included here.
Funders themselves wield considerable power (even more in austerity) and need, as we all do, to consider how that power should best be checked, balanced, shared and mobilized to keep philanthropy as a noble virtue and positive restless force in the world.
Whatever your view of the best role and scale for the state, it is hard not to see both the history and potential of philanthropy for private and public good. When I first parked my legal notebooks to become a campaigner and fundraiser, many of my learned friends commiserated with my new ultimate responsibility for Liberty’s budget. In fact I remember one rather grand commercial lawyer referring to how ‘demeaning’ it must feel to have to ask for money. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I was hardly asking for a fiver so that I could go to the pub. Instead, whether addressing a potential student member of Liberty or major donor, I was doing little different from making the argument for supporting human rights that I would make in court, in parliament or on TV.
What’s more, while court victories can be overturned by politicians and even parliamentary victories can be short-lived, there is a pure and enormous psychological and practical boost that comes from the person who owns a sum of money – small or large, earned or inherited – who looks you in the eye with warmth and sincerity and says, ‘Take this. And keep up the good work.’
Now I mustn’t sentimentalize, and I well understand the words of Ben Parker (Spiderman’s uncle) that ‘…with great power comes great responsibility…’ Of course large-scale giving in particular will benefit from the good governance and administration of the trust and foundation system. The recipient cannot always have a direct relationship with the ultimate donor and, for a whole range of sensible reasons, it will often be mediated by professional funders, the best of whom, in my experience, wear their considerable potential influence lightly.
What do I mean? I mean that modesty can be both a personal and an institutional virtue in the context of giving. I have learned a great deal about effective civil society from supportive funders over the years, but the best learning comes from dialogue not Diktat in a supportive environment that feels mutually respectful. Liberty has had the most effective funding relationships with givers who were prepared to listen as well as ask and who respected my campaigning colleagues’ expertise as well as sharing their vision and values. This isn’t just about personal humility but about straightforward process and consistency as well.
These relationships can become even more complex when former ‘players’ cross the aisle into funding or when large trusts conduct direct programmes in theoretical competition with NGOs they continue to or potentially fund. ‘Baskets’ (where groups of funders come together in the cause of more effective philanthropy) can seem the answer to the prayers of a small but potentially exciting working charity with little time or capacity for fundraising. But to those who lose out and now face fewer alternatives, the concerted action might feel a little monopolistic.
It is trite to say there is no single or simple answer and that all of the alternatives and approaches require thought from time to time. But in the end there is plenty of injustice to go around and playing our parts in partnership with the trust of other people’s giving is one of the greatest privileges there is.
Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty. Email Info@liberty-human-rights.org.uk