Unlocking the secret

A list of Britain’s top 30 donors has just been published in the Independent newspaper, headed by familiar names like Sir Tom Hunter, Chris and Jamie Cooper-Hohn and Lord David Sainsbury. They each are, or plan to be, billion pound philanthropists. But the journey that British philanthropy still needs to travel compared to American philathropy is evident from the fact that there isn’t the depth of giving – a gift of ‘only’ £600,000 wins 30th place on the list.

There was cause of optimism on Christmas day, when Channel 4 broadcast a follow up to its Secret Millionaire programme, where wealthy individuals go undercover in poor communities looking for people to help. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by this programme, so it’s easy to dismiss as sentimental when the tears flow as the millionaires hand over cheques to the people and organisations they want to help. Great TV but is it philanthrocapitalism?

Certainly the business mentality comes through in their gifts. 30-year-old personal finance tycoon James Benamor tackles poor school performance in a deprived part of Manchester by funding an ‘incentive scheme’ of treats to get kids to focus on their schoolwork and compete their education.  Haulage millionaire Hilary Devey provides core funding for the Back Door youth music scheme in Rochdale that gets young people off the streets. She is also taking the idea to scale by supporting its expansion across the country, starting in Leicester. This idea of leveraging impact by helping charities to grow is also taken up by IT entrepreneur Kavita Oberoi, who backs Sisters with Voices, a Birmingham-based mentoring scheme for young women, to go nationwide.

Cynics can point out that not all the gifts are so strategic, some are old-fashioned almsgiving. The secret millionaires also get a lot out of the programme – from adulation in the communities they support through to marriage proposals and getting a guidedog named after them. And the organisations they are helping only exist because of the work of community activists and social entrepreneurs who have stuggled for years with no recogniton and little funding.

Perhaps the most important feature of the programme is that the millionaires enjoy the experience and learn from it. The biggest gift in the series, £225,000 to a centre for the disabled in Glasgow, comes from property tycoon Nick Leslau. If he and the other secret millionaires stick with the giving habit and inspire others, maybe the 2009 list of big givers will feature some new names and larger sums.