How To Give It: beyond the bake sale

Rich People’s Problems columnist James Max on why we need to rethink charity

Image: Franziska Barczyk

A few years ago, I grew a moustache for charitable purposes. I’m sure it contributed to my premature departure from a French-owned firm that struggled to reconcile personal charitable activity with its corporate culture. In short, I think my ’tache got me fired. I was on the UK board and had recently been asked to take on a new role. Explaining our vision, I presented to international colleagues while sporting the early days of upper lip slug growth. Perception is reality, and the perception was that I’d lost my motivation. Despite a conversation with our French CEO to explain that this had become a “thing” in the UK, I could see in his eyes that he didn’t buy it. The blur between work and personal life had, perhaps, gone a step too far. Thus followed Maxit, my exit from an international advisory business. 

Work-based charitable stunts have become an inevitable part of corporate culture in the UK. While I am sure that other nations have found a range of ways to raise money, those brought up on a diet of telethons, Live Aid and Comic Relief will recognise this as a peculiarly British thing. Outside the UK, you won’t find red noses on buildings and corporate logos, nor gangs of workers dashing off on charitable missions up a mountain. Unlike my French counterparts, I’m nearly impervious at this point to seeing seasonal pullovers at work, weird hairstyles, cake sales, or enduring the various fundraising events planned to ensure key staff are out of the office for endless meetings. As a manager, you cannot intervene for fear that a lack of enthusiasm will damage the charitable wash of your firm’s core values. Nor can you express concern about the incredibly inefficient nature of these endeavours. 

Social media has liberated the way we talk about philanthropy – especially we Brits, who are typically most awkward around discussions of wealth. Asking for money has never been so easy. But the clamour of GoFundMe appeals, marathon runs and daily intrusions has made bigger charitable causes far easier to ignore – ultimately putting you in a difficult position. Do you support something because you actually believe in the cause or have done the research on the charity? Or simply because it’s a friend, boss or colleague asking for donations so you support them blindly? I suspect it’s the latter, making our giving less based on need and more on personality and, almost, luck. As a result, I’ve grown numb to endless messages from “friends” telling me that they are going to grow or shave hair, tackle the three, five or seven peaks, run a marathon, bake a cake, sleep out overnight, cycle across India or do a skydive. I am not here to help fund your bucket list. 

And, despite all the noise we make about our philanthropic efforts, we’re becoming more stingy. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, around £10.1bn was raised by the UK in both 2017 and 2018. But the proportion of people giving money declined from 69 per cent in 2016 to 65 in 2018. And £10.1bn may sound like a lot of money – until you realise that in England alone we spent £129bn on the NHS last year. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world; with a population of 66.4m you might expect that we could raise a little more. Our biggest problem is that those who can make a difference and give life-changing amounts aren’t being incentivised to do so.

It might be that our philanthropic impulses have flatlined at a time when inflation has returned. Is it fatigue? A cultural problem? I suspect the more corrosive element is disenchantment. Charities have now become professional money-raising machines requiring six-figure chief executives, employing an army of fundraisers and event organisers, deploying advertising and “champions”. The staff earn good money and often have generous expense accounts. Significant sums are swallowed up in administration. 

Consider Movember, the charity for which I grew my ill-judged moustache. When the charity first started it was fresh, new and different. I have no idea what the charity pays its top people; its report and accounts don’t go into that level of detail. I do know that 73 per cent of everything raised goes into programmes that roughly split into two areas: mental health and suicide prevention; and to provide assistance to those diagnosed with prostate or testicular cancers. That means 27 per cent, equating to some £17m last year, goes on costs and administration. As a donor, you have no say in how money is spent. 

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Movember is one of the better charities, being pretty focused and clear in its aims, but the level of leakage in the system and the lack of governance at some of our largest and most high-profile charities has eroded confidence. Perhaps we’ve just become cynical about the efficiency of major charities as they burn through donations. Perhaps that’s well placed. After all, in a recent interview the interim CEO of Comic Relief, Ruth Davidson, admitted that the charity she heads is “slightly irrelevant, dated and possibly harmful”. Own goal scored.

Then there are the charities – Oxfam, with its revelations of child abuse; Kids Company making us lose faith in the transparency of the system – that have betrayed our trust. It’s become easier to opt out of caring.

It’s not that I am against charity. Quite the opposite. There should be a significant place in our lives for us to contribute meaningfully to society. In the United States, they’re way ahead of us: Americans gave away £325bn in 2018. Their population is, of course, around five times larger than ours. How does one explain that their charitable donations are, on average, six times more per head? We all know that in the US there’s no shame in sharing with everyone how much you’re worth. They love telling you! They also love to tell you how much they donated to this endowment fund, that cause or the other institution. While we may speak the same language, it’s clear that we are still worlds apart in our psychological make-up when it comes to philanthropy.

We should remember that the very notion of philanthropy began in the UK. The building of whole towns and cities, museums and concert halls, hospitals and schools, institutions and welfare all sprang from the huge wealth generated by the technological gains of the industrial revolution. But in order for us to put our hands in our pockets we need to disrupt how charities are run. We must democratise their governance. We need to prompt discussion about personal and corporate responsibility while encouraging those who can to give more. If that means tax breaks? I am for it. If it means getting over ourselves to see more names on buildings and recognition for cash? I am up for that too. If it means changing our honours system to become a genuine recognition system for significant donations? Again, let’s change the rules. 

Charity shouldn’t be something we pay lip service to. It shouldn’t be tokenism and it certainly shouldn’t be allowed to wither and fall away. Without substantial donations, the fabric of society and needy causes would be irreparably damaged. But the wearing of seasonal jumpers or baking cakes won’t solve our country’s problems, nor will the funding of a raft of highly paid professionals. As for me? I’ll never grow a moustache again.

All How To Give It editorial content was commissioned and produced by the Financial Times. Barclays Private Bank funded our reporting but it is the independent journalism of the Financial Times, and Barclays Private Bank was not given any editorial oversight of the content.

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