SEX MAY be a safe conversational topic these days, but what you do with your money probably isn't. Even with friends it's not normally done to discuss wealth, and certainly not the morality of money.
The Network for Social Change has been breaking this taboo since 1985. An informal organisation that now has about 70 members, the Network is in one sense highly exclusive - you won't be invited to join if you're not wealthy. Members normally have assets of at least pounds 250,000 in addition to the value of their home.
What Network members have in common apart from this is a willingness to consider the personal implications of their wealth and an interest in giving at least some of it away. 'The Network offers an excellent forum for being free to talk about money. It's very open and very friendly,' says Sue Gillie, one of the members.
Perhaps understandably, the Network is cautious of publicity. However, it is keen to attract new members and has arranged an introductory meeting in London next month, provisionally on 25 June. Prospective members will then have the opportunity to attend the Network's next weekend conference in the autumn.
Ms Gillie and her husband Oliver followed this route into the Network in 1989, after she noticed a small press article. The Gillies had just found a buyer for their South London estate agency business at the very height of the property boom. 'Having sold the business for sufficient to know there was no need to earn a daily crust, I was faced with the enormous question of what to do with the rest of my life' Ms Gillie says. 'I also felt that, for all the hard work and skills I had put into our business, I was still the beneficiary of a considerable amount of good luck.'
As a result of her involvement in the Network, Ms Gillie became active in promoting Ashoka, an international charity that awards bursaries to Third World individuals promoting social change in their communities and which is partly funded by donations from Network members. 'Ashoka fellows have a combination of vision, drive and realism which can take their ideas a long way,' says Ms Gillie, currently Ashoka UK's chairman.
She is also on the small committee that is planning the Network's autumn conference on the theme of risk. 'Do we sit back, or do we actively challenge ourselves and risk losing money?'
The Network began primarily as a group of people who had inherited wealth, but has since grown to include more who have made money in business. Members range in age from the late 20s to 85, with most in their 40s and 50s. 'Some of the members are actively divesting themselves of their wealth, while others are actively accumulating more,' says Patrick Boase, chair of the Network.
The Network has developed a form of collective giving, through the pooling of money in an annual funding cycle. Possible ideas for grant support are put forward by Network members (unsolicited requests for money are not accepted), researched by other members and then debated at one of the six-monthly conferences. The total donated by Network members in this way has risen to about pounds 300,000, with a similar amount donated by more informal means.
'The Network as a whole has no expressed policy on the types of organisation or projects it will back. However, Network members' interests tend to lie in smaller projects and organisations,' Mr Boase says. 'Among other things funded this year is a debt project to employ an information officer and lobbyist campaigning for debt reduction, particularly in the severely indebted countries of southern Africa.'
'We try at conferences to have a balance between more inward-looking discussions and funding debates,' Ms Gillie adds. More information about next month's introductory session can be obtained from Vanessa Adams, Administrator, The Network for Social Change, BM Box 2063, London WC1N 3XX.
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