The tradition of philanthropy has seemingly died out in the UK

The advent of the welfare state was viewed incorrectly as lessening the need for charity

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The Independent Online

At The Old Vic in London, audiences have been marvelling at how the theatre has been reconfigured so it can hold plays “in the round”.

It’s the second year running The Old Vic has undergone this temporary transformation. As they study the programme notes for the current production, Other Desert Cities, starring Sinead Cusack, the theatre-goers will see reference by Kevin Spacey, the Artistic Director, to Sir Michael Hintze.

Without a generous donation from Hintze, writes Spacey, the change would not have been possible. Hintze, a billionaire who founded the CQS hedge fund business, and his wife, Dorothy, are huge Old Vic benefactors. “I can’t thank them enough for their support,” says Spacey.

Apart from those familiar with the City and finance, it’s doubtful if many people in the audience will have heard of Hintze. But at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Glyndebourne, Oxford University, and National Gallery, he is well-known. To that list can now be added the Natural History Museum.  Sir Michael and Dorothy have just given £5m to the museum, which will rename its famous entrance hall featuring the giant dinosaur skeleton in their honour.

At Oxford, the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation is funding its new Centre for Astrophysical Surveys, which will promote research into dark matter. There are other organisations, apart from those listed, such as the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, that also have reason to be grateful to Hintze.

His philosophy, Hintze says, is “to whom much has been given, much is expected.” In his view, “There’s no question we have a duty to serve, to give back to our communities.”

It’s a simple, unfussy, approach that seen the Hintze foundation donate to almost 200 charities. “From my early school days, I was brought up with the belief that we do have a duty to use our talents, to volunteer and to make a contribution,” he says.

In this, he is not alone. Plenty of us, plenty of those who go on to make vast sums, are similarly educated. Yet, in many respects, Hintze is out on his own. Certainly, he is among a tiny minority of the wealthy who donate to good causes on a large scale.

Something happens that sees those values that are instilled in us as children vanish by the time we reach adulthood and begin earning. Britain’s record on charitable giving is lamentable. We lag far behind other nations, notably the US, where philanthropy is regarded as a duty – a price to pay for being successful.

It was not always like this. A glance round the centre of any British city or town will reveal grand public buildings named after Victorian industrialists, halls and libraries bearing boards of donors, schools and former poorhouses named after local entrepreneurs.

But whereas in the US that tradition has been maintained, in this country it virtually dried up. The advent of the welfare state and state education were viewed, incorrectly, as lessening the need.

Our tax system did not make donating advantageous or easy. And a collective cynicism took hold, so that anyone making a large gift is viewed automatically as being “after something” – either currying favour or public recognition or both. It became a tried and tested method of obtaining a knighthood: back something worthy and an honour would surely follow. Far from prompting giving it was regarded with distaste – it still is.

What also developed, too, was a sense of distrust. Respect for our public bodies waned so that when it came to handing over our cash, we did not trust them to spend it wisely. 

Somehow, we need to turn back the clock. The welfare state and education system are under great strain and cannot cope. Any extra money in their direction should be put to worthwhile use.

We can rebalance our tax collection regime in favour of donating to charity. We could remove the link between charitable giving and instant receipt of an honour. Public bodies ought to be persuaded to build relationships with would-be donors, so that, even if they are making a bequest in a will, they know where their cash is going – something that occurs in the US.

We need to make philanthropy second nature, to restore the lessons we and Hintze had drummed into us at a young age.

It would fulfil another purpose. The gap between rich and poor is growing more marked as every year passes. Our islands are becoming consumed by the politics of envy, with much of that opprobrium directed towards the City. Either we desire a thriving financial services industry or we don’t. If we do, and returns to the Exchequer and numbers employed suggest that we must, then one clear method of lessening the hostility aimed at bankers and their ilk, is to make them want to give.

The head of Goldman Sachs boasted that his bank did “God’s work” and was widely derided for doing so. Likewise, firms such as his have been heavily criticised for engaging in what Lord Turner, the former head of the Financial Services Authority, described as “socially useless” activity.

Hintze once traded bonds at Goldman Sachs, before working for Credit Suisse First Boston, then starting CQS. Nobody, however, would dream of saying that Hintze is socially useless. Not now.

The City should wise up, before it is too late. The Government should bend over backwards to foster philanthropy. Britain so desperately needs more Michael Hintzes.