Lori Anderson: Charity’s not just seasonal

Melinda and Bill Gates. Picture: AP
Melinda and Bill Gates. Picture: AP
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The spirit of philanthropy is as alive today as it was in Andrew Carnegie’s time with adults in Britain donating billions of pounds a year, writes Lori Anderson

ME, me, me. It may be the season of goodwill to all men but it’s also the season of “Dear Santa” letters and solipsistic avarice. In between the interminable Christmas shopping soundtrack of Slade, Dean Martin and The Pogues, may I suggest a cleansing chorus of Supertramp’s Give A Little Bit?

So give a little bit

Give a little bit of your time to me

See the man with the lonely eyes

Take his hand, you’ll be surprised.

They may be separated by time and several inches of Afghan-hound-like hair but had the band been around in the early years of the 20th century, Andrew Carnegie might just have made this song his campaign anthem.

This autumn marked the 100th anniversary of the foundation in Britain of the Andrew Carnegie Trust, which was set up in 1913 to more accurately target the multi-millionaire Scot’s abundant generosity.

“To die rich” declared Carnegie was “to die disgraced.” Philanthropy is an ancient Greek word which translates as “a love of humanity” but it was an idea enthusiastically embraced by this son of Dunfermline.

It was first coined in the 5th century BC by the playwright, Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound to describe the hero’s act of giving fire and hope to mankind: philanthropos tropos or “humanity loving”. A century later Socrates became the first philanthropist when he declared that his act of dispensing his wisdom without charge to anyone who would listen was his philanthropia.

The philosophical dictionary of the Platonic Academy would later define the word as: “a state of well-educated habits stemming from a love of humanity. A state of being productive to benefit to humans. A state of grace. Mindfulness together with good works.” Today philanthropy is viewed as distinct from charity, with the former tackling the root cause of a problem and the latter the immediate effect.

In an interview on Saturday, Melinda Gates questioned the lack of British philanthropists: “I don’t understand why the British give less.” The foundation she set up with her husband, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, donates almost £4 billion per year to eradicating disease and poverty in the third world and the couple are working with Warren Buffett on the Giving Pledge, to persuade billionaires to donate 50 per cent of their wealth to charity. As Gates said of their philanthropy: “it gives meaning and shape to our lives.”

Yet there is conflicting evidence about Britain’s attitude to philanthropy. In 2010-11 adults in Britain donated £11 billion to charity, a figure second only to America, with 56 per cent of the population giving to charity in any average month. People of faith are the most generous, with Muslims donating on average $567 (£347) per year. Atheists are the stingiest, donating an average of $177 per year. In June, 2011 the Philanthropy Review, a coalition of charities, was set up to create a Britain “where more people give and people give more.” Their initial report advocated that banks allow customers to set up a charitable account for donations and that employers operate a scheme where donations can be deducted at source, like pension contributions. In Britain fewer than 1 per cent of companies operate such schemes compared to 35 per cent in America.

The report also pointed out that in America those who earn more than £200,000 per year give around £90 to charity for every £1,000 they earn, compared to those in Britain who give just £2 for every £1,000 they earn. The image of wealthy Britons discovering that they’ve misplaced their wallets when the charitable plate is passed around is undercut by the Centre of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Last year it released a report which said that in 2011 there were 232 donations in the UK of £1 million or more. The comparable figure in America was 811 donations of £1 million or more, which is rather poor when one takes into account the fact that the USA has seven times as many millionaires as Britain.

The manner of corporate donations is changing. In the past multinational companies would create a foundation targeted towards a specific charity, then donate a large sum for the charity to spend as it pleased. Emporio Armani donated the profits from sales of Red sunglasses and watches to the fight against Aids while a quarter of the price of Ralph Lauren’s Pink Pony products go to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Today Gucci is using its brand in a different way to encourage the public to support a wide range of causes which target girls and women but which all shelter under the umbrella title “Chime for Change”.

As its website states, this is: “a new global campaign to raise funds and awareness for girls’ and women’s empowerment” across education, health and justice.

As Patrizio di Marco, the CEO of Gucci said: “We didn’t want this to be ‘Gucci saves the world’ thing. We wanted Gucci to be the vehicle to help other people to act.”

Gucci launched Chime for Change, which now has Sarah Brown, Gordon Brown’s wife on the board, by funding a concert in London which raised £4m with concertgoers donating the ticket price to the charity of their choice.

The reason why luxury goods companies are beginning to embrace philanthropy lies within the sting of conscience; it is a way to dilute the guilt for their avaricious customers. As Margot Brandenburg, a fellow at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who is currently writing a book on charity said: “The truth is, for the price of one luxury handbag, you could easily give food and water to a family in a challenged area for a year. A ‘branded’ movement makes facing that reality unavoidable, which can create a lot of discomfort for a consumer. On the other hand, it also lays bare the contradictions we all live with every day.”

When the rich give they set a challenge to their wealthy peers which means their public profile can be as valuable as their donation.

As Professor Peter Singer, the author of The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty said: “There’s no question that anonymous giving is perceived as the most selfless form of donating. However, I tend to think in the current setting people are more likely to give when they know who else is giving.”

If Andrew Carnegie were alive in Scotland today, he would be proud of the generosity of the likes of JK Rowling and Sir Tom Hunter but even the poorest still have something to give. In this season of charity and good will it is worth remembering the words of Mother Teresa who said: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

Or as Supertramp sang: Send a smile and show you care.