A paper published today by the Institute of Directors, the employers' organisation, calls the level of altruism in this country "pitifully low". As a proportion of income, Americans give more than three times as much as Britons.
Graeme Leach, the institute's chief economist, writes: "UK consumers give away only 0.5 per cent of their disposable income at a time of economic prosperity." He calls for a doubling of Britain's charitable giving, which would take the total donations to pounds 9bn per year.
Charitable donations have fallen from pounds 5.3bn in 1995 to pounds 4.5bn in 1997, a drop of 15 per cent in cash terms and 33 per cent after adjusting for inflation. A steep drop since the mid-1990s coincided with the launch of the National Lottery, suggesting that people assumed their lottery tickets would make up for lower donations. However, the decline started well before the lottery was launched.
The average weekly donation in 1997 was pounds 1.30, compared with an average household income of pounds 420 a week. Fewer than a third of households gave anything at all to charity.
Of those who did donate, more than half gave less than pounds 1 a month. But the average is raised by an "altruistic elite", consisting of the 3 per cent of the population who give more than pounds 50 a month.
Most of these are at the top of the income scale, and they are more likely to donate their money in a planned way, through covenants or Gift Aid. Gift Aid contributors donate pounds 1,200 a year on average.
The most alarming trend is the even sharper drop in giving by young people, the paper suggests. Only 6 per cent of Britons between the ages of 18 and 22 made any charitable donations at all during 1994, compared with 17 per cent in 1974.
The decline in giving is puzzling at a time when income levels and average educational qualifications have improved: both of these tend to boost altruism. Mr Leach suggests that the fall in church attendance has been an important contributing factor. Surveys show that people who declare religion to be very important in their lives are much more likely to give to charity.
In addition, and in line with the institute's free-market philosophy, Mr Leach blames big government. Charity has come to seem less important because people assume the Government will step in.
"Younger age groups in particular are driven by the belief that it is the Government's responsibility to deal with social problems and that this should be paid for out of taxation. People need to understand that the welfare state is not the first and last provider, and that they cannot pass by on the other side," he writes.
`The End of Altruism?' is available from the Institute of Directors, 0171-839 1233.Reuse content