A Nation of Givers

“[T]he call to social action needs to speak to individuals’ motivations and account for the obstacles to giving; to fit with people’s lifestyles and interests.” That this is the big idea in the British Government’s new Green Paper on Giving that was launched in London on Wednesday, shows the influence of so-called behavioural economists like Richard Thaler (co-author of the bestseller Nudge) in the efforts to turn the Brits into a nation of givers. Can the nudgers succeed where others have failed?
According to the World Giving Index 2010, Britain is among the top flight of philanthropic nations, coming in eighth overall measured in terms of giving money, giving time and willingness to help a stranger. Yet the government of David Cameron wants citizens to do more; not, the Green Paper insists, because the public coffers are empty but because a giving society (or Big Society, as the politicans have named it) is a better place to live.
This is a laudable goal yet successive governments have tweaked the tax laws and sponsored exhortatory campaigns to promote giving in the past and have been disappointed with the response. The Green Paper ignores the tax question (now is not the time for new tax breaks) and focuses instead on making it easier and more attractive to give. What follows is a rather jumbled list of suggestions and ideas from offering people a chance to donate via their ATM (a Colombian initiative, apparently) to ‘cost-free’ giving (who could object to that?) through mechanisms like everyclick, and even getting government Ministers to write thank-you letters to major donors.
What is striking about many of these ideas is that so few of them are actually government’s to deliver. The message that comes through is that charities, many of which are now facing up to a famine of government money after several feast years, are going to have to revolutionise how they mobilise donors and that new technologies will have crucial role to play (although it is odd that the paper fails to mention two of the most successful innovations in mass philanthrocapitalism kiva and donorschoose).
We are pleased to see that two ideas that we championed in our Philanthrocapitalist Manifesto have made it into the Green Paper – more government money used to match fund donations and a payout rule for foundations – both of which could have a large and immediate effect on giving.
More disappointing is the Paper’s rather tired approach to the role of business, which sees private companies simply as sources of charity cash. As we argue in the book, the much more exciting trends in corporate philanthrocapitalism come when companies put the full force of their supply chains, production processes, procurement systems and investment strategies behind creating sustainable long-term value. Maybe those questions lie outside the terms of reference of a government paper on giving but the danger remains that the role of business in the Big Society is being too narrowly defined. Let’s hope we are proved wrong.
Green Papers, of course, are where government thinks aloud and measures the response. Prime Minister Cameron is to be applauded for having started the debate. Let’s hope that the concrete initiatives in the White Paper on giving that will follow in the spring will be even bolder.

0 replies on “A Nation of Givers”

Matthew, I’d include myself in those wanting to give more but it can be far from easy. Take for example the work we did at our own cost to leverage social change in Ukraine.

In our paper describing a centre for social enterprise, we’d made an argument for capitalism to be re-directed to serve those in greatest need. We’d made the same arguments several years earlier in the UK.

“An inherent assumption about capitalism is that profit is defined only in terms of monetary gain. This assumption is virtually unquestioned in most of the world. However, it is not a valid assumption. Business enterprise, capitalism, must be measured in terms of monetary profit. That rule is not arguable. A business enterprise must make monetary profit, or it will merely cease to exist. That is an absolute requirement. But it does not follow that this must necessarily be the final bottom line and the sole aim of the enterprise. How this profit is used is another question. It is commonly assumed that profit will enrich enterprise owners and investors, which in turn gives them incentive to participate financially in the enterprise to start with.

That, however, is not the only possible outcome for use of profits. Profits can be directly applied to help resolve a broad range of social problems: poverty relief, improving childcare, seeding scientific research for nationwide economic advancement, improving communications infrastructure and accessibility, for examples – the target objectives of this particular project plan. The same financial discipline required of any conventional for-profit business can be applied to projects with the primary aim of improving socioeconomic conditions. Profitability provides money needed to be self-sustaining for the purpose of achieving social and economic objectives such as benefit of a nation’s poorest, neediest people. In which case, the enterprise is a social enterprise.”

Our aim had been to leverage assistance from US government and this was demonstrated by the arrival of the East Europe Foundation a year later. As you know, from the Ukrainian lunch at Davos where Sir Richard Branson spoke in 2008 on business focused on social problems, we saw the Philanthropic Roundtable evolve. Later, in 2009, David Cameron spoke at Davos of ‘capitalism with a conscience’. A conscience which appears to have evaporated when it came to asking his government to support our own work.

You may have heard recently that in Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is under threat of a ‘super injunction’, which coincides with a recent article on Ukraine’s billionaire Scrooges, featuring the host of the Philanthropic Roundtable where you are quoted by the East Europe Foundation for pointing out the potential of connecting corporate capital with the inherent trust of NGOs.

EEF and the British Council have recently embarked on a social enterprise initiative in Ukraine as we’d prescribed, yet the primary focus of our work, children abandoned to the state, seems to be where neither government will tread. USAID respond in writing to say that there are insufficient resources to deal with ‘this group of children’ and UK government prefer to disregard it.

There is a cost to our giving, as a self sustaining social enterprise, not least in the tax we pay to fund government and their development initiatives. In this context we’ve paid twice.

“sustainable long-term value”…this is redundant. Long-term value by definition is sustainable.

Why don’t the authors give long-term value more coverage if this is something they truly believe in? I see philanthropy and long-termism as being closely linked. You can’t have philanthropy (or a vision on what philanthropy should be) without a thorough understanding of long-term thinking. And I’m not convinced the authors understand either.

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