Donations: Giving it away

British charity is being led by a new breed of mega-philanthropists. So why do they do it?
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"My name is John and I am a philanthropist." The text message he sent to me after our conversation had deliberate echoes of Alcoholics Anonymous. John knows what it is like to stand up in one of those meetings and declare an addiction. And he wanted to say that our encounter had felt as intimate and confessional as that. But then it must be hard to tell a relative stranger that you have £100m to give away.

The money will be spent as anonymously as possible - no big launches, no brass plaques (even the name of his charitable foundation was chosen because it had no previous connection with him). "This is not an ego-driven thing," he said at his London flat near Sloane Square. From the rooftop garden we could see tennis players on the courts far below. "It is my heart and soul, and a lot of the motivation in my life, to give the money away properly."

Yes, it was tempting to ask for some of it - but that would probably have brought the conversation to a swift end. It was also tempting to be sceptical, because grand gestures from the very rich often attract a great deal of attention - such as when the American investor Warren Buffett declared last week that he was giving £20bn to the charitable trust run by his fellow mega-philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates. But John - he does not want me to use his surname - came into his own money more than two decades ago, while still in his early twenties. He has been quietly giving it away ever since, helping people in this country and abroad protect the environment, conserve nature and care for those with HIV and Aids. Now 47, he plans to close down his foundation slowly over the next decade and give away almost all its assets.

You would not see him in the street and think, "There goes a millionaire". His khaki chinos and swirly-patterned shirt are smart casual, but not ostentatious. The watch on his wrist is plastic. He has good manners and can be charming, but is cautious about whom he trusts. Making friends must be difficult if you suspect - rightly in some cases - that they are as impressed by your money as by your personality. "There is a fear within myself - and I see it with other wealthy people too - that there may be a hidden agenda," he told me. "I am still very careful. It is hard to get to know new people."

It is also hard to know how many people there are like John in Britain, keeping charitable work afloat. The fund-raisers and friends who work the same circuit of drinks parties and gatherings know it is vital to be discreet. Some become public without meaning to, like the 39-year-old hedge fund manager Chris Hohn, who emerged last week as one of the country's top donors after giving £50.4m to his own charity working in Africa. He turned down interviews. On the same day a report by the Charities Aid Foundation identified "the new rich" - entrepreneurs who have made millions and want to do good, but usually with some control over how that is done.

The top 30 donors in Britain gave away £440m last year, said the report. Most generous was Sir Tom Hunter, the former sports chain owner who is said to have given £100m over the past 10 years. Self-made men and women like him "compose a demanding major donor pool," said the report, "wanting to make a difference to the global problems of the world and invest in social change rather than simply hand out alms to the needy."

Philanthropists are back, in other words. They never went away in America, where even internet entrepreneurs who can't yet shave share the Victorian conviction that with great wealth comes responsibility. In Britain the decline of the church and the post-war creation of the Welfare State let the rich off the hook. Asked if he gave to charity, the heavily taxed Ringo Starr said in 1968: "The Government spends our taxes on helping people."

Margaret Thatcher cut taxes, dismantled welfare and exhorted wealth creators to help charities fill in the gaps. John's family needed no telling: as a child he was given a cheque book "to make small donations of £500 or £1,000 or whatever". Dedicated evangelical Christians, members of his family were committed to their own radical form of the biblical directive to give a percentage of income to the poor. "The belief was almost reverse tithing," he said. "You give 90 per cent of what you make away and keep 10 per cent. That is your duty."

As the only son, he was due to inherit the contents of a trust fund when he came of age. But his behaviour caused alarm. "I started drinking to oblivion at 13," he said. "Frankly, my family were panicking. I was the only person coming along to this bundle of money and I could have gone right off the rails."

The money was meant for John and the children he would raise, as a member of a leading Christian family. Which presented a problem. "It wasn't necessarily apparent to others that I wasn't going to have children, but I knew in my own heart of hearts that I wasn't, being gay."

Rather than face the situation, he could have signed a piece of paper, taken all the money and run off to live the high life. "I did have the choice, legally. I could have just said I wanted it all." Instead, John told his appointed legal counsel that he wanted to start his own foundation. "He was rather surprised it was of my own volition. He wanted to be sure I was of sound mind."

John kept £6m for himself, but put £30m out of reach in the Rufford Foundation, named after a park near where his then partner lived. The early funds went to HIV projects, street children - "I picked that up through my mother" - and conservation, the cause closest to his heart. The smartest philanthropists know that it is better to ally yourself with experts; and through a family link Rufford began to work with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Now it gives a large number of small grants to environmentalists in the way the WWF used to. These have helped to study and save crocodiles in the Philippines, elephants in India and birds of prey in Kazakhstan, among very many others. "The small grants are my real passion," said John. "They will go on after the rest of the foundation's money has been given away."

Those assets now total £100m. Two-thirds of the £4m distributed every year goes to the environment, nature conservation and sustainable development. Another chunk goes to disaster relief. The most visible example of the Rufford Foundation's work is through sponsorship of the Whitley Awards for conservation hosted by Princess Anne at the Royal Geographical Society every spring. In addition, about £250,000 a year goes to the Elton John Aids Foundation. "They have the expertise in HIV that we have in conservation, so why reinvent the wheel?"

As the foundation grew, John worked flat out seven days a week to meet the demands of charity and business. "I couldn't find an administrator that I liked and trusted. Not surprisingly I burned out." No amount of help or giving could resolve the issues tearing him apart. "I found it hard to justify my existence, being gay and from a very strong Christian family at a time where there were virtually no gay role models." Wealth meant he could get his hands on any kind of distraction. "I am very addictive, I can get addicted to anything. I am also stubborn as an ox. There was lots of denial."

Twice he checked into rehab clinics. "I have been asked many times, in therapy and rehab, why I did not kill myself. My belief system precluded it. I thought something worse would happen to me - either hell, from the Christian side, or when I started exploring other beliefs such as reincarnation I thought there was no escape anyway."

Now, after studying other religions including Islam, he describes himself as a liberal Christian drawn to Tibetan Buddhism. He is pleased to be in recovery, and "now actually glad to be alive. I'm very happy and proud of what we do.

"Money is a tool and it is a gift. I have the choice of using it for something constructive or destructive. I jolly nearly destroyed myself in the process of finding that out, but fortunately I have survived. One of the main reasons for that - apart from having a good partner for a long time - was that the foundation really gave me a reason to live."

One trip that made him realise it was all worthwhile was to the mangrove swamps of India. "We were having a picnic on the roof of the boat when this old poacher-turned-gamekeeper shouted: 'Tiger!' We watched as a tigress swam from one island to another, then called for her three almost-grown cubs to follow."

Stories like that can make his travels sound like a long, exotic backpacking trip - except that John can pay for good hotels; and more importantly, money follows in his wake, paying for local people to be trained, land kept from the developers and animals saved. The tigress was protected from poachers by a patrol boat paid for by the fund.

Charity workers often say that the trouble with rich people is they want to tell the experts what to do with their money. "We are not directive," insisted John, "but we do look very carefully at each application." He reviews 1,200 of them a year with a panel of advisers, particularly watching out for scams. Wherever there are rich people there will be devious scoundrels - which is another reason why the new philanthropists are either extremely clear about which causes they will support, like Chris Hohn and his African charity, or go about their good works in private like John. He quotes Mother Teresa - after making very sure I understood that he would not dream of comparing himself to her. "When she was asked about all the others that she couldn't help, she said, 'I do what I can do. That is my responsibility. The rest is up to God.'"