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.