Philanthropy and the common good

Expert opinion

Contemporary Britain is defined by the personal generosity and social commitment of our predecessors as much as by the state.  But as the state retreats, demands on the voluntary sector grow, the gap between rich and poor and intergenerational inequality continues to increase, charitable giving stagnates despite greater personal wealth, society is more divided and extremist politics and demagoguery threaten to undermine liberal democracy.

In my second book, OUR COMMON GOOD, I examine the role that philanthropy could play in sustaining our civil society and democracy and demonstrate what a practical response could be to the challenges confronting society and the beyond profit sector in particular.

I asked a simple question: if the state provides less, who will provide more? I talked to more that 100 people in various parts of the country; philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, academics and local authority, charity, think tank and business leaders.

My research revealed the significance of philanthropy in the UK today and the impact it has upon the lives of all of us.

The effectiveness of the NHS depends upon the strength of academic medicine which is almost entirely funded by charitable donations. Mental illness affects one in four of us. Philanthropy is funding a new charity; MQ is Britain’s first major mental health research charity. The future of higher education and our knowledge economy will become increasingly reliant on philanthropy to fund post-graduate studies and research. Our cultural achievements and creative industries, the fastest growing part of our economy, would not be possible without philanthropy. Charitable donations are enabling the poor who are denied legal aid to have access to justice. Philanthropists invented social housing in the nineteenth century.  In the twenty first century, the need for more philanthropic and social investment in housing has never been greater.

Amid the challenges we face, there are opportunities: not least to transform the state and the way the public, private and beyond profit sectors work together to find innovative and enterprising solutions.

Onside Youth Zones is a national youth charity that supports 30,000 young people.  This is a philanthropic initiative and a proven model of how we can empower young people; not only has Onside brought communities together, it has reduced anti-social behaviour and youth unemployment. Philanthropy is providing local resources for those in need of support, but, crucially, local authority investment remains on the charity’s terms. The return on local authority investment is six-fold according to Treasury statistics.

As the state retreats, we need new sources of social, intellectual and cultural capital to sustain society and the economy. This requires everyone to adapt: charities need to be more business-like; businesses need to respond to the requirement of their employees and customers to be more socially committed; the public sector must become an enabler rather than a provider which means being prepared to invest as an equal partner. All of us must be prepared to give and do more as donors and volunteers. All sectors must become partners in supporting the common good.

The Prime Minister refers to a shared society but that necessitates the state devolving responsibility and sharing power.  Is government ready for this?

John Nickson is the author of Giving Is Good For You and Our Common Good. (Biteback Publishing.)

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