Why the rich are getting richer and giving less to charity

Even the most generous of the super-rich are giving away a smaller proportion of their wealth, because charities have forgotten to how to ask nicely and show their worth

Dan Corry
Monday 25 April 2016 10:49
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Harry Potter author JK Rowling is know to be among the most generous of wealthy Brits
Harry Potter author JK Rowling is know to be among the most generous of wealthy Brits

The annual Sunday Times Rich List is reminder that, for a select number of our fellow citizens, money seems to fall like confetti. The chance to compare the wealth of billionaires with plain old multi-millionaires doesn’t come along that often. It is strangely compelling reading.

My eye, however, is quickly drawn to the 'Giving List'. This data, covering 200 of the richest philanthropists in the UK, tells us how much the country’s super-rich have chosen to give away to help others. It’s compelling stuff, too – but for very different reasons.

The figures demonstrates something that we’ve been arguing for some time: big givers could be much, much better at philanthropy. They could achieve far more with the cash they give to good causes.

This isn’t to deny that rich Brits are very generous, some extraordinarily so. The private wealth given away by the 200 people in this week’s list adds up to more than £2.5bn. It hardly needs to be said that this is a staggering figure, moving wealth from private hands to do social good.

But it doesn’t come down to cash alone. The numbers also show that it just got easier to enjoy a reputation as one of the UK’s top givers.

Last year, you could appear in the top 50 by giving away at least 2.56 per cent of your residual wealth, and in the top 100 if you gave away at least 1.08 per cent. Just 12 months on, you can achieve the same by giving away smaller proportions of your wealth: 2.07 per cent and 0.87 per cent.

What’s going on here? One sensible explanation is that, while individual wealth has gone up, charitable donations have remained constant and hence have gone down as a percentage of the whole. But this also suggests that philanthropy, and its potential impact, is not getting the attention that it should.

Here are some very rich people who will most likely have portfolios of investments and financial interests. They have chosen to donate significant chunks of this to good causes, yet that bit of their portfolio looks pretty static.

There are worrying signs that some philanthropy has been allowed to coast along, unchanged and unexamined.

It might sound churlish to see that someone has given away six figure sums and push them to think a bit more about what they are doing but, frankly, the stakes are too high not to. The UK desperately needs more and better philanthropy. More, because charities can’t get by without funding (and the unrestricted funds offered by private givers is especially useful), and better because we should be honest enough to admit that not all donations are equal. Kids Company is only the most extreme example of a charity showered in cash but too poorly run to be effective and sustainable.

For the super-rich whose names dominated our newspapers this weekend, adopting a new model of philanthropy needn’t be too difficult. A bit of due diligence goes a long way: if the burning issue is helping homeless children, for example, which charities working on this have the soundest finances? Which can show what donations will be spent on, and a record of success in these projects?

There are a handful of organisations which spend their days advising philanthropists on how to give better. Some choose this more detailed approach, but at present it is relatively rare.

Philanthropists still give away thousands without asking much at all about what their money can achieve, and far too many charities still couldn’t answer the questions if they were put to them.

Dan Corry is the chief executive of the think tank New Philanthrophy Capital

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