The Giving Pledge

10 August 2010 | By Cause4 staff

In previous Cause4 post we have made reference to the The Giving Pledge launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It was launched ‘to encourage billionaires and other wealthy people to make a moral commitment to supporting philanthropic causes and charities’. Last week it was announced that over 40 American billionaires by way of response had pledged to donate half their fortunes to charity. We are bound to wonder whether something similar could ever happen in the UK.

Bea Devlin, Head of International Secretariat at CAF, recently suggested that ‘if every UK billionaire gave more than half of their wealth to charity it would result in an extra £60bn going to good causes’. With the national debt standing at around £160bn, such a response could go some way in allowing Philanthropy and The Third Sector to plug the gap in service provision. In the light of this is it reasonable to anticipate a flood of donations from wealthy UK individuals?

Samuel West, writing in The Evening Standard, offers perhaps the most likely answer: ‘Donors don't want to fill a gap,’ he states boldly. Sir John Ritblat on Radio 4’s Today programme has expanded. As a philanthropist, he insisted, he would happily continue funding projects like exhibitions but would be deterred from funding areas that he felt were government’s responsibility. Sir John is not alone. Philanthropists and grant-making charitable trusts have generally said much the same over many years in determining to which causes support might be given.

Sir John’s consideration begs some fundamental questions. What is the responsibility of the state? What is the responsibility of individuals? Is there a clear line of demarcation to determine what might warrant charitable support and for what the Treasury might pick up the tab? There are, of course, no universal answers providing neat formulaic guidance. These matters are wholly subjective based upon our own personal political convictions. And in the midst of all of this, Cause4 offers two thoughts:

Firstly, we suggest that the question is not so much about what Government should fund, but rather – and more pragmatically – what significant programmes, those that will not otherwise take place, merit support, from The Treasury or from the private sector – or from a combination of the two. Treasury support offered to match funding provided by private sources offers an excellent solution, ‘best bang for the private buck’.

Our second thought concerns Government’s role on encouraging philanthropic giving. The success of The Giving Pledge in the States arises because it is led entirely by philanthropists, those who have themselves ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and who stand as an exemplar. Attempts by Government to lead on this agenda will be counter-productive. That is not to say that Government does not have a vital role in supporting a culture of giving, in making giving easier, more tax-efficient and recognised. But at a time when it is taking away, they must leave it to those that give to set the pace.

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