Patronage used to be a private affair. Now when the rich feel moved to bestow their millions they make sure we know about it
Anyone would think that our nation's filthy rich set had suffered a collective twinge of guilt last week. Either that, or their accountants had offered some white-hot tips on tax-efficient trust funds. Certainly something has stirred the conscience of the nation's wealthiest; causes from the worthy to the downright weird were awash with the green stuff by the middle of last week.

First in the queue of philanthropists was Garry Weston, the man who brought novelty to our childhoods in the form of Wagon Wheels, and then a dietary antidote in the shape of Ryvita. Worth pounds 2.5bn at the last count, he has just given pounds 20m ("no strings attached") to the British Museum, a rather serious cause for someone who made millions from funny-shaped marshmallow biscuits.

Close on his heels was millionaire Peter Lampl, who founded a private equity firm, Sutton Trust, investing in Europe and America. He is offering nearly pounds 1m a year to turn the fee-paying Belvedere School for girls in Toxteth, Liverpool, into an "open access" school, through his trust fund. He wants to use his pilot scheme to persuade the Government to fund the top 100 independent schools in the country on the basis of merit, not wealth.

Then from the admirable to the absurd: Laurance Rockefeller, one of America's richest businessmen, decided to donate an unspecified amount to an entirely British project: crop circle research. Of course any list of "charidee" activities would be incomplete without Sir Paul McCartney, last week in the form of yet another tribute to his late wife. This time he has commissioned eight classical composers to write songs for a new album, A Garland For Linda. Macca will perform them in a cancer research fund- raising concert at Charterhouse School in July.

So, just another week in the lives of those who can give as good as they earn? Or do these acts of kindness signify a long-term sea change among the super-rich? In America there is a tradition of the seriously rich giving to good causes, mainly due to tax relief for donors to charity and for the founders of charitable foundations. In Britain, until now, such patronage has been rarer - or, at least, the attendant publicity has been.

"It's actually becoming a more respectable thing to do - letting people know you give to charity," observes Pat Thorne, editor of WealthWatch magazine. "In the past they [British millionaires] have always been shy to boast about their charity. Now they're letting people know."

The Americans are, naturally, way ahead of the Brits when it comes to the give-and-tell approach. Last year the media tycoon Ted Turner challenged other members of the Forbes 400 rich list "to loosen up their wads".

Bill Gates recently gave pounds 15m to an Aids charity. Last year, he donated pounds 100m to a children's vaccination programme. The American people, though, may be getting wise to these tactics; there was certainly a sense of cynicism that Gates's donation coincided with a Microsoft trial, where he was accused of breaking the rules to squeeze rival companies out of the industry. And when Turner gave $1bn to the UN in September 1997, critics were quick to point out that Turner made immense profits in terms of tax savings.

According to Philip Beresford, who compiles the annual Sunday Times 500 Rich List, there are signs that the super-rich are beginning to dig a little deeper over here, too. "The assets of charitable trusts and foundations have grown sharply in recent years, in line with the growth in wealth of those who set them up," he says.

This also reflects the growth in the number of wealthy people around - more than one in every 500 people now enjoy millionaire status. Today a millionaire is likely to be young and to have scaled dizzying financial heights more quickly than other generations. And, importantly, they don't really know what to do with their money. Charity is an increasingly popular alternative. "People are getting richer younger," Beresford says. "Younger people feel it's cool and hip to give it away. Older people are selling their businesses and making pots of money."

Giving is also about taking control - something the rich do well. Rather than watch your hard-earned piles erode rapidly courtesy of the Inland Revenue, why not invest the money, enjoy tax relief and decide where you want the sums to go? Martin Paisner, a charity expert, explains: "With the introduction of Gift Aid, a tax-efficient way of giving to charity, you get relief against your income. If you own a million and give a million, you'll get 40 per cent tax relief. So the net cost to you is actually pounds 600,000. Wealthy individuals find that attractive."

There's also the attraction that their donation exists in perpetuity. As Luke FitzHerbert, editor of A Guide To Major Trusts, says: "The fact that they're stinking rich doesn't mean they're going to live for ever. But if they donate to say, Carnegie Hall, they will live on."

Generally, though, what the wealthy give is a tiny proportion of what they earn. Several years ago the charity Directory of Social Change, which provides information for the voluntary sector, published a report, The Millionaire Givers, and some of its findings are still extremely relevant. The authors discovered, for instance, that the bigger the salary, the less people are likely to give and that the most "generous" households were those of skilled and unskilled workers. FitzHerbert agrees. "The more they earn the less they tend to give as a percentage of their income. I suppose one characteristic of making money is an affection for the stuff."

Still, there are those who seem genuinely motivated to help a cause. When Lampl intervened, he did so from what seemed like a sincere outrage at the state of our inner-city schools. "The advantages of wealth in our education system are astonishing and are not seen anywhere else," he said. No doubt small numbers of the British wealthy elite have realised that major institutions in arts, health and education may crumble without their intervention. It becomes a rather more attractive option when you consider the perks that can go hand in hand with giving on a grand scale. As Philip Beresford says: "For some it's part of that old adage, if you give half a million to one charity, a million to another, and if you've got a squeaky-clean past, you're in line for a knighthood."

TOP 10 GIVERS

1) THE SAINSBURY FAMILY Causes Arts, environment, leukaemia, science, social welfare Total donations pounds 41.4m Wealth pounds 3,100m

2) THE WESTON FAMILY Causes Medicine, education Total donations pounds 26.9m Wealth pounds 1,500m

3) VISCOUNT LEVERHULME Causes Animals, cancer, agriculture Total donations pounds 16m Wealth pounds 30m

4) THE LAING FAMILY Causes Christian, education, youth Total donations pounds 12.4m Wealth pounds 60m

5) VIVIEN DUFFIELD Causes Arts, museums, Jewish Total donations pounds 7.1m Wealth pounds 45m

6) LORD HAMLYN

Causes Education, Third World, publishing, elderly Total donations pounds 3.6m Wealth pounds 275m

7) JOHN SUNLEY Causes General Total donations pounds 3.2m Wealth pounds 29m

8) THE FRESHWATER FAMILY Causes Jewish Total donations pounds 3m Wealth pounds 150m

9) THE FLEMING FAMILY Causes Conservation, arts, medicine Total donations pounds 1.4m Wealth pounds 400m

10) SIR DONALD GOSLING Causes Youth, arts, forces' welfare Total donations pounds 700,000 Wealth pounds 450m

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