Fergie the Philanthropist

Philanthropy can sometimes be controversial but it rarely provokes public protests. Yet over the summer the people of the Northern Moor Estate in Manchester took to the streets to show their displeasure at the efforts of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, to fix their ‘broken’ community.

In a TV programme, ‘The Duchess on the Estate’, the royal philanthropist visited Northern Moor several times and raised £40,000 ($67,000) to build a new community centre. She certainly tapped into a public concern about the problems of poor communities where violent crime is out of control (although one politician may have gone too far when he compared Britain’s problems to those of Baltimore as depicted in The Wire, one of our favourite TV shows).

Indignant residents took to the streets last month to show their anger at what they saw as the Duchess’s inaccurate and stigmatising portrayal of their community. Some of the criticism smacked a bit of Northern belligerence, sneering at ‘soft southerners’, since there are much worse places in Manchester than Northern Moor. For others, the very idea of philanthropy as a solution to complex social problems was anathema.

In the book we write about the way that a number of royals, from Prince Charles to Queen Rania of Jordan, are stepping up as celebrity philanthropists to use their brand and convening power for good. So, is the attack on the Duchess justified or is it just the usual bashing of one of the less popular royals (the Brits have never really taken Fergie to heart)?

Sadly, it is a bit hard to tell. We have not been able to track down a website for the Duchess’s foundation where we might have found evidence of impact, which is a shame (although there is one for her international charity Children in Crisis). However, we did find that she has written book called Reinventing Yourself with the Duchess of York, which inspired us (as humble subjects of the Queen) to offer our three top tips for the Duchess on reinventing herself as a genuine philanthrocapitalist.

First, figure out how you are going to leverage change. Northern Moor’s new community centre may be a useful asset for the community but complex problems of deprivation demand changes in the way that government works. Fergie’s brand gives her access and influence to pass on what she has learned to help government to work better, which would be a real, enduring impact.

Second, evidence, evidence, evidence. Philanthropists, like royalty, may not hear what people really think about what they are doing. Philanthrocapitalists should seek independent feedback to test if what they are doing is really working.

Third, transparency is crucial. Good philanthropy should provoke criticism and debate – just look at Bill Gates and George Soros – and philanthrocapitalists should welcome it. Unlike her critics, we hope to hear more, not less, about the Duchess’s giving.

(Our thanks to proud Mancunian Alison Staples for alerting us to this story, which broke while we were away on our summer holidays.)