Building up hope from here to posterity

The fire at Glasgow School of Art in May was a disaster. But new forms of philanthropy will help it to be repaired. Picture: Getty
The fire at Glasgow School of Art in May was a disaster. But new forms of philanthropy will help it to be repaired. Picture: Getty
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How do we get people to give more to good causes – and not just to the ones that are already well funded? asks Nick Addington

Why should we be interested in philanthropy? Isn’t it just rich people getting their names on the walls of museums and opera houses? Or Bill Gates funding research to prevent malaria in Africa? As we go about our lives in Scotland, we might be tempted to ask, “What has philanthropy ever done for us?”

Well, we’re surrounded by the legacy of philanthropists: the local libraries (from Annan to Wick) built with funds from Scots-born American industrialist Andrew Carnegie; the civic institutes named after their benefactors; the churches built with the help of donations from their congregations; our parks and village halls on ground donated by local landowners.

Philanthropy’s impact isn’t just about the grand gestures of the great and good of bygone days. Today, if you’ve been to university, you’ve benefitted from the expertise and facilities nurtured with private donations. Scottish universities received £40 million in philanthropic gifts in 2012/13. If someone in your family has been affected by cancer, they may have been cared for by a Macmillan nurse, or attended a Maggie’s Centre at the hospital – both dependent on private donations. If you’ve visited an RSPB reserve or had a day out at a National Trust for Scotland property, your enjoyment has been made possible by the generosity of those charities’ many donors.

In our communities, the scout hall, the Citizen’s Advice bureau, the lunch club for the elderly, the carers’ centre, the food bank … are all enabled by the funding provided by donations large and small. Philanthropy and charitable giving touches all of us to some extent, even those of us lucky enough to be financially secure and healthy. And philanthropy is something we can all do. It just means thinking about how we want to make a difference with our giving. It doesn’t have to be measured in millions of pounds and it can include giving time as well as money.

As the Smith Commission considers what powers will enable Scotland to shape a successful society and economy, here are some of the questions we might ask about the future of philanthropy in Scotland:

How can more people be encouraged to give more to causes in Scotland? As constraints on public spending continue to increase, there is a strong incentive to harness private funding to assist in preserving and promoting the wellbeing of our communities. Although many people are being squeezed by the impact of the recession and the failure of wages to rise in line with the cost of living, Scotland remains a wealthy country. Aberdeen has the highest concentration of millionaires in Britain, and our financial services sector looks set to continue to generate wealth for its businesses and employees. And whatever people’s circumstances, research generally shows that Scots are already amongst the most generous people in the UK.

Tax incentives – from Gift Aid to the recently introduced Social Investment Tax Relief – are an established way of encouraging people to give by reducing the cost to a donor of making a charitable donation. Could greater powers over taxation give Holyrood additional levers to incentivise philanthropy?

Could incentives be used to redress the imbalance in how charitable resources are distributed geographically? A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice highlighted that some deprived urban neighbourhoods have about a third of the level of charitable activity per head than many far more affluent rural neighbourhoods. Why not try creating special “giving zones” with favourable tax treatment to prioritise investments in organisations and services in geographical areas of greatest need?

Special challenge funds, where public cash matches philanthropic donations as a way of encouraging donors to support a particular cause might be part of this approach. A current example is the Scottish Government’s pledge to match the first £5 million of donations to help rebuild Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building. Could we have more such challenges to lever more donations to support our most disadvantaged communities?

As public funds struggle to meet the acute needs of people and communities in hardship or ill health, do philanthropists’ resources offer a way of investing in preventive activities and services, to reduce demands on the state in the future? What does this mean about how private donors should work with local and national government? Is this a challenge for the traditional view that philanthropy should fund things that are solely beyond the reach or responsibility of the state?

Everyone agrees that one of the good things about the independence referendum was that so many people engaged in debating and discussing the best future for Scotland, its people and communities. Meanwhile, a survey by UK Community Foundations found more than half of people questioned in Scotland said they’d give more if it was made easier and they could see the difference it made. People also said that they thought giving locally is twice as effective as giving to national or international causes. How can we link this increased public engagement in the future of our society with this interest in local giving to encourage people to give – whether money or time – to good causes in Scotland?

What about achieving lasting social change? For all the great and important work charities and other organisations do with vulnerable or disadvantaged people to improve their lives, or to alleviate hardship and suffering when it happens, it’s by changing policy at a political level or changing behaviour in the wider population that real social advances are made. This requires research, campaigning and lobbying by charities and interest groups to influence politicians, decision-makers and the public. If we really want a fairer, healthier and greener Scotland, we need to help people organise, communicate and campaign. The post-referendum surge in political party membership suggest Scots are up for this. But this is not an area the establishment tends to feel comfortable about – witness recent comments by UK government politicians suggesting charities should “stick to their knitting”. And neither is it something that donors always want to see their money used for, either because it’s controversial, threatens their own interests, or it’s just too long-term and intangible when it comes to measuring the difference their donations have made. Will donors in Scotland be willing to invest in the ability of charities to campaign for change?

• Nick Addington is head of philanthropy services at Foundation Scotland. Scotland’s Philanthropy Debate takes place at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh on Tuesday 18 November. For more information please email: