Philanthropy | For Goodness’ Sake

The children’s charity that’s banking on City bonuses

City bonus culture has found an unlikely supporter

The children’s charity that’s banking on City bonuses

Image: David Humphries @ Monster

July 30 2009
Claire Wrathall

In spring of 2009, the dynamic chief executive of Save the Children UK, Jasmine Whitbread, announced that such was the force with which “the economic crisis had hit low-income families” that the charity had taken “the unprecedented step of launching a crisis-grants programme to provide support to families in Britain facing serious economic difficulties”.

This was an extraordinary undertaking when you consider that Save the Children works principally in the developing world on issues such as child mortality, hunger and education, and was at the time “responding to emergencies” in Sri Lanka, Gaza, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Whitbread might therefore seem an unlikely supporter of City bonus culture, given the extent to which it has been blamed for the state we’re in. But though she is quick to deplore anything that “encourages excessive risk-taking or, worse, pays out to people with responsibility for failure”, she believes bonuses can be an impetus to philanthropy. “When people get a large lump sum in an annual payment,” she says, “they are very alive to compelling propositions for how to spend it.”

Compelling propositions she hopes to be able to capitalise on, thanks to “close associations with the City”, not least through her trustees, many of who have banking backgrounds. They include Adair Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority (Whitbread herself is a graduate of the Stanford business school and was a managing director at Thomson Financial before she began working for NGOs in the late 1990s).

Making a substantial gift to a charity can certainly seem to the donor to make a greater, more meaningful difference than the steady drip-feed of Give As You Earn. In the past, says Whitbread, international development organisations have tended to get most of their funding “from lots of people giving relatively small amounts, in stark contrast to the arts and education, which get a larger proportion of their funding from major gifts”. Whitbread believes Save the Children is one of the first development agencies to redress that – to which end she is pioneering a programme of “bespoke giving” by hosting breakfasts and small after-work receptions in the City at which existing supporters can talk to their peers about their involvement and, indeed, investment – a word that peppers her conversation – in the charity. The model conforms to what has become known as venture philanthropy inasmuch as it allows those making “sizeable” donations (which she defines as £30,000 plus) to choose where their money is spent – “geographically and thematically” – and be able to keep tabs on the impact it makes.

“With an investment of £110,000, one could found a school in Uganda,” she says, “which would educate 3,000 children.” The donor is kept informed of exactly where their money is spent in terms of classrooms, teachers’ accommodation, sanitation, books and the influence the school might achieve “over time, as more children pass through it”, which could in turn lead to Save the Children “advocating nationally in Uganda for wider change in its education system”.

“We want to engage with our supporters,” she says, “and provide an environment where we can put them in contact with people on the ground, to tailor our offerings to their interests and concerns, and address the tricky questions that intelligent, savvy investors have in terms of scaling up, leverage, audit trails and what we can achieve long term.”

Though there have always been philanthropists in the City, no UK figures exist to detail what proportion of bonuses are given away. But, Whitbread observes, the mood in the financial services industry in the UK is encouraging. “We’re seeing a re-evaluation of lifestyles,” she says. “A lot of people have had a bit of a wake-up call, and that’s caused them to step back and think about what they really value in life.”

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, called on bankers at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January to “repair their esteem in the eyes of the public [and] assuage their consciences by giving their bonuses and a share of their salaries to things like helping disadvantaged children”. Whitbread’s call to action is more pronounced. “Every three seconds a child dies from something preventable,” she says. “With a donation, you can save a child’s life.”