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The future of charity?

31 Oct 2010 Voices

Paul Gibson reflects on the recent trend towards  philanthrocapitalism to divulge his thoughts on creating a better future for the sector.

Paul Gibson reflects on the recent trend towards philanthrocapitalism to divulge his thoughts on creating a better future for the sector.

Can we continue to do all that we do and do more as well? What does this mean at a time of recession, job losses, cuts in public spending, pawnbrokers on every high street and the needs of an ageing population?  

I’ve been thinking about the Evening Standard’s recent campaign, The Dispossessed Fund. The Standard’s campaign seemed fine, rather like those idyllic village green scenes in Doctor Who, before the daleks appeared and we all hid behind the sofa. The campaign highlighted the grinding poverty of many workers in London and their daily struggle to make ends meet. In response, the Standard has raised some £5m and this money will make a real difference.

But where did the money for this campaign come from? Large donations came from large companies, banks, hedge funds, the very organisations which have a vested interest in the status quo. Who is speaking out against this double standard?  

You may have read The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors took a rigorous look at the benefits of a smaller gap between rich and poor. One of the best examples is health. In fairly equal societies such as Japan, Spain, Italy and Germany, one in ten people report a mental health condition in any given year. In less equal nations like the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, that number doubles to one in five and increases to one in four in the US. These statistics should make government finance, health and other spending ministersstop and think. For more information, visit the Equality Trust.  

Has charity a key role to advocate at the heart of our society for those whose voices are not heard? Let me give two examples. Our food in this country is manufactured largely by Big Food Producers and sold to us by Big Supermarkets. Do we really want highly-processed food, transported from all around the world? Who speaks out for us as individuals and for our communities who want things done on a more local level? Can charities work in collaboration, to speak truth to the powerhouses of Big Food Producers and Big Supermarkets?  

Internationally, there has been a trend to ‘philanthrocapitalism’, where the super-rich give their wealth to their own private foundations. The University of Cambridge has an endowment of $8bn. In contrast, the Gates family have given the Gates Foundation $23bn since 1994. If 40 other American billionaires were to give away half of their wealth, this could come to a further £100bn. These are eye-watering and brain- numbing figures. There is no doubt that the Gates Foundation and others do really good work and make a huge impact. But what do we have to say about the way in which these fortunes are made and the effect this has on the developing world? Also, where is the accountability of these private foundations, except to the rich who fund them?  

The key to the future of our sector is equality. Can we align the public benefit of charity with a passion and desire to build a fairer and more sustainable world? Can trustees deliver this through their work, on individual boards and collectively? A challenge – yet a very real prize.  

Paul Gibson sits on a number of national Quaker boards and is treasurer of the Development Trusts Association




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