More A Whisper Than A Scream

When a group of British donors and charity chiefs announced at the end of last year their own independent review of how to make Brits give more to charity, we were excited at the possibility that the philanthropy community would come up with new ideas to promote giving. Indeed, since David Cameron’s government was engaged in the same enterprise at the same time, the fact that philanthropists would go toe to toe with politicians and civil servants to come up with the best ideas was rather inspiring. Yet, even judged against the government’s White Paper that was launched last month, the Philanthropy Review report unveiled yesterday rather underwhelms.

Not that all the ideas are bad ones. The report rightly points out the weakness in data on giving in the UK. The suggestion that high street banks should offer ‘charity bank accounts’ sounds like a more sensible way for the financial sector to serve the public good than the government’s extortion of some “Davegeld” soft loans for its Big Society Bank. But whose job it is to fix these data problems and whether the Review’s proposals will fly with the banks is less than clear. (The reviewers want to convene a meeting with government to talk about data and a feasibility study of ‘mainsteam’ charity banking by accoutancy firm Accenture is due in July.)

Less ingenious but worthy nonetheless is the report’s plug for more payroll giving. As it says, only 1% of UK companies and 4% of British workers participate in this method of giving tax-efficiently, compared to around 33% of workers in the United States. The review is, again, light on ideas on how to make this happen, although the suggestion that companies should be made to include data on payroll giving in their corporate reporting is probably a good one. (Despite this, rumours earlier this year that the Philanthropy Review was going to do some groundbreaking thinking about how business can support the Big Society have, sadly, proved unfounded.)

Other than that, the report is mostly focused on the usual stuff about needing more tax breaks for giving. Not only is the report opaque about the cost to the taxpayer of these measures, it also feels a bit like cheating, at least when comparing the Philanthropy Review to the Giving White Paper which was avowedly tax revenue neutral. Yes, more helpful Gift Aid rules, lifetime legacies and suchlike might be an incentive for more giving, but the Reviewers would have been much more radical if they had started with the assumption that the government subsidy to giving is not going to grow in this age of austerity. A plan for a new system of tax breaks that would be more effective in incentivising philanthropy while being revenue neutral for the Treasury would have been a more helpful contribution to the debate.

Even more disappointing are recommendations such as the need to promote giving education in schools (maybe not a bad idea), which is quickly followed by lobbying for a public subsidy of £1 million. Could a group of philanthropists and foundation execs not have been a bit bolder and, at least, put up the cash to pilot and prove that this would be a good use of taxpayers’ money? It is ironic that a report that talks a lot about changing the culture of giving still seems so stuck in the old ways of looking to government cash as the solution to every problem. (The Review also drips with the familiar UK charity sector aversion to even acknowledging more radical ideas, like a US-style payout rule for foundations.)

One advantage that the Philanthropy Review has over the White Paper is that whereas politicians and civil servants move quickly on to new challenges, this group of the great and the good is likely to keep plugging away at these questions. Maybe some big announcements will come with the rather sketchy ‘Give More Campaign’ that they say they are going to launch later this year. If they mean business, why not bring Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to London to sign up some British billionaires to the Giving Pledge? Surely, for starters, the Philanthropy Review could offer up that nice Richard Branson to promise to give away half his fortune?