Thursday, 13 August 2009

I'm thinking...

I'm sorry not to have posted for so long. I've been experiencing one of my intermittent periods of self-doubt - wondering whether the degree of interest shown justifies the effort, or whether I'm really writing to myself. There are a number of options -

- discontinue and do nothing
- carry on
- broaden the remit, and maybe therefore the interest
- discontinue and perhaps twitter instead

Anyway - I'm thinking....

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Meaning of Long

Sorry for the long silence.

Actually it’s ‘long’ about which I want to ruminate in this post. I realise that I’ve become fascinated by all those projects which track people over a long period of time. Nowadays, many of them are film-based; the much-copied 7-Up series, which is following a group of children from the age of 7 starting in 1964 (the ‘children’ are now in their early 50s) is the benchmark. The whole series so far, up to and including 49 Up, is available on DVD, and watching them back-to-back, rather than with a 7-year gap, is an engrossing and moving experience. Give it someone you love and then borrow it from them, or watch it with them (56 Up is expected in late 2011 or early 2012). Beware imitations – from the brief extracts I’ve seen, the BBC’s Child of Our Time, for example, doesn’t come close. Channel 4 has been running an interesting variation focusing on a group of children with special needs, who it has followed for 10 years – Born to Be Different is a dignified and, again, very moving series lacking the voyeuristic tendencies of so much of that Channel’s recent output (How To Look Good Naked [ans: wear some clothes], Embarrassing Bodies etc etc ad nauseam).

When I was at JRCT we funded something called HighScope, founded by Dr David Weikart who, Google tells me, has since been called to higher service. He was a very engaging and challenging fellow, as I recall, but the point of mentioning him here is that in 1962 he set up something called the Perry Preschool Project which, as his New York Times obituary (2003) states -

…took 123 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and placed 58 in a preschool with highly trained, well-paid teachers who made weekly visits to parents. The rest received no extra attention. He [Weikart] then followed the children through life, regularly checking on them…The results have been consistently impressive. The former preschoolers were more likely to own homes and earn more than $2,000 a month, less likely to receive welfare or be arrested for crimes. Mothers were more often married… He found that $15,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars was spent on each child, while the savings to schools, welfare, prisons and potential crime victims exceeded $145,000. These results were duplicated in studies in North Carolina and Chicago, and the findings became a major element in the national discussion about Head Start...

Weikart studied these children for 40 years, and the learning has informed the nature of pre-school provision in the US and the UK. But all this is by way of background. I’ve been moved to put finger to key on this subject now having just read an amazing article in The Atlantic (available on line here ) which describes what has emerged from a 72-year (sic) study of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s. I cannot begin to summarise it; it is a most extraordinary study (official name: the Harvard Study of Adult Development; unofficially known as the Grant Study, after its founder, W.T.Grant), and the person who has been responsible for it for the past 42 years is himself a fascinating person. The learning, the understanding about what makes us tick, the insight into the important questions, about how to live, and - the title of the article - 'what makes us happy?',is phenomenal.

All of which presents a real challenge to the foundation world, with its continued obsession with three year funding. Weikart was constantly having to pursue new sources of funding for his work (which continues today – see here). As the Atlantic article makes clear, funding was also an issue for the Grant Study:

Most longitudinal studies die on the vine because funders expect results quickly. W. T. Grant was no exception. He held on for about a decade—allowing the staff to keep sending detailed annual questionnaires to the men, hold regular case conferences, and publish a flurry of papers and several books—before he stopped sending checks. By the late 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation took an interest, funding a research anthropologist named Margaret Lantis, who visited every man she could track down (which was all but a few). But by the mid-1950s, the study was on life support.

We urgently need new models of foundation funding which provide a degree of assurance and encouragement for those embarked on long-term exercises, alongside the necessary mechanisms for accountability. If, despite market exigencies etc, endowed trusts continue to exist let some of them at least have the courage of their longevity – I long to see the announcement of the first 30 year grant… Meanwhile, if you read nothing else this week, do have a look at the Atlantic article. My guess is that at some point the good old Guardian will provide us with a shortened version, but you, being part of the small cultural elite which has the good taste to follow this blog, will surely want to read the whole thing (and - seriously - tell your friends; they will thank you for it).

Monday, 6 April 2009

When you're in a hole, start digging.

As I was digging our little allotment over the weekend - well, it's actually a bit of someone else's, with their blessing of course - I was reflecting on the fact that people keep asking me how the credit crunch is affecting British foundations. Thinking about this sort of thing while digging is probably a sign of a sad mind, but, as we shall see in due course, there are connections….

Anyway, when people ask me these things, I tell them I don't know because there have been no dramatic grants programme closures as far as I know, and some trusts have been saying that it's business as usual. ACF is surveying the scene and it will be interesting to see the outcome. Problems have been more severe elsewhere in the English-speaking world, I gather. A correspondent from New Zealand tells me that two trusts there – including the biggest by far – have suspended grant making. And in the US, the combination of the crunch and Madoff has led to severe difficulties for some foundations apparently. Speaking the other day with a charity auditor, I got a sense that many foundations may be in denial and that the real effects will be felt once dividends reflect the crunch -- in other words, this crisis has a long tail.

All of which might usefully cause foundations to reflect, first, on whether they could usefully work with others begin to share overheads in order to get more bang for their buck and second, whether they have assets beyond money which they could usefully exploit to the benefit of their hard-pressed applicants. I don't hold out much hope for the first option as it seems to me that some foundations would rather go down screaming "we've got to stay independent!" than prosper in combination with others.

But the second possibility is surely not beyond imagining. Foundations have offices, networks, skills, and sometimes even tangible valuable assets like land. This, then, might be the moment for them to think about how they can sweat these assets for the ultimate benefit of those who have traditionally needed their grants.

A rather extreme example of this cropped up some months ago when I was privileged to listen in on a conversation between a leading social entrepreneur who is well-known for his creative thinking and, even more important, his ability to make things happen, and the denizens of a British foundation. Said foundation has a chunk of land and is not sure what to do with it. Someone had had the excellent idea of inviting the social entrepreneur to walk round the land and to suggest a way forward. He took one look at it and said "you could fit a lot of allotments in here". He went on to imagine a place to which children would flock in order to learn about growing and preparing food. There could be greenhouses in which tropical fruits might be grown -- and places where they could be used as ingredients of ice cream. There would be places to learn to cook. This would be a kind of national food centre - all very much in the sprit of St Jamie, and linking with ideas about 'education with production' which have been much discussed and tried in parts of the developing world.

I don't know whether the foundation concerned decided to go ahead on these lines or not -- I hope they did. Meanwhile, I'll carry on with our little patch; nothing tropical there -- just a few lettuces, courgettes and – so appropriate to this blog (I told you there were connections) -- some rhubarb.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Arrested Philanthropy

Another birthday, another boxed set...thankfully, because a carefully chosen one is an excellent gift (if you haven't started to plough your way through The West Wing, The Wire etc, well, there are much worse ways to waste your life...). My first comedic venture into the boxed set world is Arrested Development, in which, to my delight, there is a character called Lindsay Fünke, a member of a dysfunctional and wealthy family, who gets into charity, but lacks consistency or commitment (another week, another cause...). The very first episode shows her declining a canapé at a party, saying she's absolutely stuffed, and above her head is a banner – Stop the Hunger. Another party is in aid of HOOP, an anti-circumcision charity (HOOP, in case you haven't worked it out, stands for Hands Off Our Penises). In a later episode she says – “I care deeply for nature”. To which her brother points out that “You're wearing ostrich-skin boots”. Lindsay’s response: “Well, I don't care about ostriches”. Lindsay has also spoken out against cattle ranching and fish farming, and was on the committee to improve school lunches with more meat and fish.

All this gives an excellent excuse to quote yet again Mordecai Richler’s book, Barney’s Version, in which Duddy Kravitz, a rich and successful hustler, yearns for social respectability. In pursuit of it, he has a brainwave – he’s looking to start a foundation in aid of some disease or other. Problem is, most of the big ones have gone. As he says –

.. it’s a tough call. Don’t tell me. I know. Multiple sclerosis has already been nabbed. So has cancer. Parkinson’s. Alzheimer’s. Liver and heart diseases. Arthritis. You name it, it’s gone. So what I need is some disease still out there, something sexy I could start a charity for, and appoint the governor general, or some other prick, honorary patron …… Polio was terrific. Something kids get tugs at the heartstrings. People are suckers for it.

Now, the eponymous hero – Barney – eventually suggests Crohn’s Disease, an unpleasant disease affecting a significant number of people. He explains it to Duddy –

It leads to gas, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, fever, weight loss. You suffer from it you could have fifteen bowel movements a day

Who responds –

Oh, great! Wonderful!…. I say, how would you like to be a patron for a charity for farters? Mr. Trudeau, this is DK speaking, and I’ve got just the thing to improve your image. How would you like to join the board of a charity my wife is organising for people who shit day and night? Hey there everybody, you are invited to my wife’s annual Diarrhoea Ball. Listen, for my wife it has to have some class. I want you to come up with a winner by nine o’clock tomorrow morning….

And then there’s Renu Mehta and the Fortune Forum. Oh, but I forgot, that’s real.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

They don't know it all

There’s a website – – where the world of UK philanthropy offers itself up for real debate about strategies, issues, directions. Here, the really controversial issues are debated – currently, for example, the role of philanthrocapitalism. It’s a place where there are links to the really interesting stuff from the broadsheet press (such as the excellent piece by Marina Hyde in the Guardian recently (sample: Charity may begin at home, but philanthropy begins with paying tax…Even a man of Stanford's preposterous bluster would struggle to explain how enabling tax dodging has anything to do with giving a toss about other people. He and his ilk are fauxlanthropists. ). This site is very much in the spirit of open debate so fully embraced by the UK foundations. The Association of Charitable Foundations now has a section ( of its much-improved website where the public, and especially grant seekers, are encouraged to submit their views about organised philanthropy, and to debate these with each other and with the trustees and directors of the foundations – and a very lively debate it is too. What’s also very encouraging is how many of the progressive foundations have themselves opened their websites to 2-way traffic (e.g. ); instead of just using them to provide information and guidance for potential applicants, or even allowing applications via their websites, an increasing number invite comment on their policies in an attempt to shape them with the benefit of the insights of those actually doing the hard work out there in the field. The world of philanthropy is clearly not afraid of open debate.

OK, I lied. And I’m sorry if anyone wasted time following those dummy links (the Guardian one is for real, and the article to which it links is, in my view, spot-on). But you get my point.

To be fair, Philanthropy UK – and a real link is coming up – does at least seek to cover the controversies in its quarterly newsletter but unless I've missed something, even P-UK is one-way traffic. So why isn't all that stuff above true? What kind of insecurity is it that makes UK philanthropy afraid of real debate? This isn't just a matter of responding to the zeitgeist. By saying, in effect, “we don't know it all and we value the views and ideas of others”, the field would also be doing just a little about the unequal power relationship between grant seekers and grant makers. I’m not sure whether they do this kind of thing better in the USA – I surfed a bit but with no great discoveries. Hey, we could be first!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

I merely ask

As I write, the nation’s power stations are being hit by what are described, quaintly, as ‘wildcat’ strikes. These are the result of a free market in labour in Europe, which, at a time of sharply rising unemployment, has led many working people to resent jobs going to foreigners (in this instance, Italians). While the employers and those who let the contracts stoutly deny that this is about cheap labour leading to reduced costs, the widespread suspicion remains that this is exactly what it’s about. The fact that the issue arises at all leads me to wonder where the trade unions have been all these years while the world has been globalising. In the very week that the Guardian has shown us, in some detail, how big British companies play the global market so as to minimise the amount of tax they have to pay, it seems that the unions have yet to respond in like manner – to organise internationally, at the very least on a pan-European basis so as to ensure that you have to pay workers their market rate, wherever they come from and wherever they’re working. Why isn't the Italian branch of Unite bringing its people out in sympathy with those British workers in Lincoln? And what about the foundations? It’s my contention that in a very difficult economic situation, people who so far haven’t, will begin to notice these very few largely unaccountable agglomerations of wealth and to ask themselves “What’s that for then? Can’t we have some of that?” Those asking the question may be politicians, taxpayers, local authorities, or hard-pressed service providers. And how, then, will the UK foundations answer? Will they be sufficiently internationalised to make common cause with analogous organisations elsewhere in the world – and especially in the European Union? Or will they be picked off, nibbled at, and over time find their autonomy eroded? Will the combination of the ACF and the EFC be strong enough to defend them? I merely ask.

Monday, 19 January 2009

A Pub Bore at the Movies

This is the time of year when it’s a challenge to fit in all the great movies which come out to line up with the awards season. I have therefore been given permission to divert from my main themes in this posting, in order to chunter about what I've seen recently. This isn't Peter Bradshaw, btw; no, this is the cyber-equivalent of the bore in the corner of the pub who just needs to tell you what he’s been up to recently.

First, Frost/Nixon, which we saw followed by a live Q&A by satellite (well, you can’t expect these busy people to come all the way to York, for heaven’s sake) with the writer, Peter Morgan, and Michael Sheen, who features in a lead role in most of Morgan’s oeuvre (irrelevant fact: Sheen's dad is a semi-professional Jack Nicholson lookalike). I haven’t seen the play, and someone who’s seen and liked both tells me that there is some good stuff in the play which isn't in the film – nevertheless, when, in the film, Frost asks Nixon “And the American people?”, you sit there waiting for Nixon to acknowledge the extent of his crime in one of the most tense silences I’ve known in the cinema. The film reignites an old debate about the permissible limits of fiction in the context of historical events – one of the key episodes in the film never happened. It took a question from an audience member to elicit this from Peter Morgan – which emphasised the foolishness of the interlocutor, Jason Solomons, an Observer film critic, in dominating the questions himself and only allowing a few minutes for the ordinary punters to have a go. Oh, I almost forgot - Peter Morgan dropped in the slightly amusing fact that the Broadway production of the play was called 'Nixon/Frost', because no-one in the US can recall who Frost was.

To Slumdog Millionaire: it’s very violent in parts, and has a visual scatological bit near the beginning which had the whole audience groaning out loud - definitely one to see with a crowd in the cinema. I gather that some in the Indian film business don't like the film, because unlike the generality of Bollywood films, it doesn’t try to sanitise the reality of life on the streets in Mumbai. Nevertheless, there’s a wonderful Bollywood ending over the titles – someone sitting in front of me tried to get up as soon as the first title appeared; he sat down again very quickly.

If you go to see Slumdog having read on the side of a London bus (those that aren’t advising you of the probable non-existence of an omnipotent deity, that is) that it’s a ‘feel good movie’, you may be in for a shock. Particularly if – like me - the last feel good movie you saw was Mamma Mia. Slumdog is to Mamma Mia as a bike is to a Rolls Royce. Both will get you there, and leave you pleased at having accomplished the journey. But you will feel much more battered by the elements at the end of the bike journey, yet also more profoundly satisfied at your achievement. They also have something in common – both stories are ludicrously improbable, but I doubt that anyone who sees them will care about that. The songs are better in Mamma Mia, even if they have to be shoe horned uncomfortably into the story (and if those takes were the best they could get from Piers Brosnan by way of a singing voice, then can we please be spared the ones on the cutting room floor, if they have such things in this digital age?). My daughter gave us the Mamma Mia DVD for Xmas, knowing that her mother had much enjoyed it on a girly trip to the cinema. This meant that I could watch it in the privacy of our home. (I am a devoted Abba fan. If the original recordings pall after a bit, try mezzo soprano Ann Sofie von Otter singing Like an Angel Passing Through My Room. Have a Kleenex to hand).

Films are much more fun than philanthropy; discuss.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Getting, Giving and Golf

On Christmas Eve, Nicholas Kristoff, in a New York Times article called The Sin in Doing Good Deeds, asked the question: If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? The season has also been enlivened – for those of us fortunate enough not to have been victims – by Mr Madoff whose name and swindle (as many have pointed out) are straight out of Dickens. It’s interesting, and sad, that so many charities lost money with Madoff. Ed Pilkington points out in a Guardian piece called Tales from the country club that the Palm Beach Country Club was at the heart of Madoff’s social and business circle. As Pilkington writes: anyone wishing to join has to prove they are not only persons of huge wealth but also of upstanding character - they must demonstrate that they give away hundreds of thousands of dollars each year as charity. In return, they gain entry to a social circle that can help them further enhance their fortune. Madoff, he says, was the epitome of the moneymaker/money-giver, as he not only coined wealth for himself and others, he was also a major philanthropist. It’s surely no coincidence that one of those who lost money with Madoff was Arpad Busson who, as both readers of this blog may recall is the same person whose charity, Absolute Return for Kids, benefited from a fundraising dinner (at which guests were entertained by Prince) which raised over £26 million. Pilkington has neatly summarised the process through which this kind of charity simply serves to reinforce the situations which give rise to the need for charity in the first place. It is regrettable that some very worthwhile charities have been caught in the Madoff backwash (and a good thing that Atlantic Philanthropies is coming to their rescue, in part at least) but those of us who have been deeply suspicious of this kind of conspicuous giving/acquiring can surely, as the New Year dawns, allow ourselves some comforting schadenfreude.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Free to Serve

[This blog has been bit silent recently. Lots of reasons: pressure of other stuff; not being able to see the philanthropic wood for the trees; some self-doubt – does anybody actually read this? Am I talking to myself? And, finally, I can’t decide how much latitude to give myself by way of subject matter. Any guidance on any/all of this will be welcomed]. Enough angst; to business.

It’s time for a public inquiry into the role and purpose of endowed grant making trusts. There – I’ve said it, and feel better for having done so.

While everybody's been going on about the importance of charities and public benefit, the focus has been on organisations which appear to serve the interests of the privileged and yet receive the tax benefits of charitable status (the obvious example being the laughingly named ‘public’ schools). As I’ve written here before, the absence of any specific regulatory regime which focuses on the trusts means that they are regulated just like any other charity. Despite the fact that they don't raise money from the public, the law treats them as if they did – and its main concern is that the public aren't ripped off. The main purpose of the foundations is to give money away, but in practice, the only interest the law has in how this is done is that the money is spent on things which are legally charitable. We need at the very least a public debate about the role of foundations. In these cash-strapped times we need to decide why exactly we give them tax privileges -- why we agree, as a body politic, that you and I should play a little more tax in order that they should pay none, on their income at least.

Let's have a heated debate. Why hasn't there been one already? The reason for that, I think, is clear. Almost any non-statutory organisation with a capacity to initiate such a debate is likely to be in part dependent on income from trust grants. It takes courage to start something which might look as if you are biting the hand which fees you, or might feed you in the future. The organisation which could initiate such a debate and could announce that is going to look at endowed grant-making foundations as a special category, is of course the Charity Commission. While it would be nice to think that the foundations themselves might initiate such a debate, perhaps through the Association of Charitable Foundations, I am sceptical about whether this would ever happen, however, not because ACF isn't an excellent body (it is, albeit with a small percentage of the 8000-odd UK foundations in membership), but because - with notable exceptions - foundations have demonstrated a lamentable inability to work together on anything. That's one of the issues that such a public debate might explore -- to what extent it is still appropriate for the intentions of founders long dead to be used as an excuse for determinately ploughing one's own furrow despite the changing scale and nature of social problems?

How might the debate start? I think it needs a focus -- a commission of inquiry would be a good start, made up of people of independent mind, some with knowledge of the foundation sector and perhaps some without it but with the capability of gaining it quickly. And, yes, I would be free to serve, even if it means yet fewer posts to this blog.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Jeremy Hardy was wrong

Morning-after ruminations. On this bright new day, it’s interesting to note just how close some of the US foundations have been to the whole process. Two of them - the Annenberg Foundation and the Joyce Foundation – got caught up in the McCarthyite smears which Republicans used to try and damage Obama. And now that they’ve failed, foundation people are amongst those likely to find places in the new administration. My friend Colin Greer, director of the New World Foundation, gave what turns out to be quite a prescient interview to Open Democracy in December 2004, just after Kerry had lost, on how the Democrats could win. The interest which US foundations have shown in politics, social justice and related issues is in stark contrast with the situation here, even allowing for the difference in scale. Why do UK foundations find it so difficult to work together, to respond to crises, to focus on matters with a political dimension? The formation of the Woburn Place Collaborative is a potentially significant step forward, and those of its meetings that I’ve been privileged to attend have been positive and constructive occasions. But then you come to action – to actually doing stuff, launching programmes, making smart interventions - that’s where it all seems to go pear-shaped. So much so, that I now honestly believe that the most significant crisis facing humankind, with profound implications for social justice, will, so far as actual work goes, be largely unacknowledged by even some of the most progressive UK foundations. There are honourable exceptions, of course, including some here in my home city of Old York, but by and large UK foundations are hoping that climate change will go away, while they bury their heads under the duvet. Meanwhile mine (head, not duvet) is aching from banging it against a brick wall (see Stepping up the Stairs, Responding to the Rooftops).

But, hey, nobody likes a whinger at a time like this. Maybe the truly amazing events of this week will inspire UK foundations in ways as yet unimagined - it may take a little time. As for me, I'm still finding it difficult to adjust to the reality of President-Elect Obama; ever since - just after the first UK bank collapse - Jeremy Hardy asked the News Quiz audience "Listen - if there's anyone out there who seriously thinks the USA will elect a black man to the presidency, I'd like to meet you, as I've got some Northern Rock shares I'd like to sell you...", I've convinced myself that it couldn't happen (a conviction aided by the man from Pittsburgh with whom I had breakfast - see earlier post). And, astonishingly, unbelievably, wonderfully, it has.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Irritating my Ingratus

I hesitate – seriously – to go for full frontal criticism of a fellow labourer in the philanthropic vineyard. After all, I’m a nice person. OK, I’m not a nice person, but at least I try. Well, OK, I try most of the time but make exceptions, such as Sarah Palin (but then I gather she doesn’t have a good word to say about me either). But Martin Brookes, Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, has touched my nastynerve (or, as I believe medics call it, the ingratus. Incidentally, I don't advise googling 'Latin' and 'nasty' - it brings up lots of links to 'Latin ladies' who are apparently keen to do nasty things...). Anyway, in an article in the Autumn 2008 edition of New Philanthropy Capital’s quarterly magazine, Giving Insights, Martin Brookes attacks Polly Toynbee (which in my book is a punishable offence anyway) and David Walker for their criticism of philanthropy, in their book, Unjust Rewards. I hasten to add that I haven’t read the book, but I have read the extract from it which appeared in the Guardian on 4th August. In it, St. Polly and Mr Walker take issue with vast gifts from wealthy individuals which are used, in effect, to ‘buy’ both social position and influence over social policy. They are especially sniffy about philanthropy which comes with conspicuous consumption as part of the process – citing, for example, the way in which Arpad Busson generates cash for his charity, Absolute Return for Kids, which raises money for academy schools. They mention specifically a fundraising dinner which raised over £26 million, at which guests were entertained by Prince, and items auctioned – by the deputy chair of Sothebys no less - included a day on the set of the latest Bond movie and dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev. Criticising this sort of thing, according to Mr Brookes, will only discourage future givers. And, he concludes, it will be the poor and disadvantaged who will suffer.

Aaaargh! This is so screamingly wrong that I don't know where to begin. Calm down, Steven, take a deep breath. OK; people are poor because of a social and economic system which allows some people to be disgustingly rich. Charity from such people helps some of those poor people to change their circumstances a bit (though whether academy schools have that effect is to say the least debatable) but does nothing to change the system which gave rise to their need for charity in the first place. Money-raising which happens through such bloated and tasteless methods – I mean, Prince! - serves to remind everyone involved that some people are rich, and some are poor. Martin Brookes gives a nod in the direction of social justice by stating that ‘Philanthropy is not an excuse for inequality or unfair taxes’ (my emphasis); he’s right – philanthropy of the kind criticised by Toynbee and Walker reinforces inequality. And I don't see why we should shut up about it in case it scares the poor dears off giving any more -as Martin Brookes would apparently wish us to do. When Arpad Busson spends big bucks on arguing for a more progressive taxation system, then he will have my respect. NPC says that among other things, it’s concerned about ‘understanding the root causes of societal problems’. Based on Martin Brookes’ article, it seems to be more concerned about the flow of philanthropic money, regardless of how it’s raised, and regardless of what effect it has on social injustice. Like everything in this little sub-region of the blogosphere, this thought is startlingly unoriginal; to quote Joseph Rowntree, yet again: Charity as ordinarily practised, the charity of endowment, the charity of emotion, the charity which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery which it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates.

Now, nurse, please take me to a darkened room. I need to lie down.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Obama in airport cash shock.

At last - a philanthropy angle on the US elections. It's here. I just wish I had a vote.

Is this research centre about charity or justice?

A new research centre was launched this week. I couldn’t be at the launch but that’s not because I don’t think it matters. Because this is what’s officially described as ‘The UK's first independent, multidisciplinary and academically-based Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy’, and it – or at least its funding- has a curious history. Government and/or the ESRC was always going to launch such a centre (at the same time as launching a separate centre with a focus on the Third Sector). But then, in 2005, Alison Harker and I wrote a report for the Carnegie UK Trust called Stepping Up the Stairs, (SUTS for short) about social justice philanthropy. Amongst our proposals was the idea of.... yes, you clever things you, you guessed ... a research centre. The then director of Carnegie, Charlie McConnell, saw an opportunity and went for it, persuading his trustees to offer funding, and seeing the resulting centre as a quick way of meeting the SUTS proposal. The centre has three spokes, and the second spoke, labelled as ‘charitable giving and social distribution’ at least seems relevant. So, as the new centre gets going, I wish it well, but I also hope that spoke two doesn’t get lost or captured. Because the fundraisers – those who care more about increasing the amount of money raised for charitable purposes than how it’s spent – have a way of making their voices heard. But they have their vehicles already – for example, the Institute for Philanthropy has done some impressive work providing support, encouragement, training and research to underpin giving and to get more of it. There is – till now – no research centre asking the difficult question: what good is philanthropic money doing? To what extent is it changing society for the better? How far is it contributing to greater social justice, and how far is it perpetuating social injustice? - recalling the words of Joseph Rowntree who wrote, when he was only in his 30’s, that 'Charity as ordinarily practised, the charity of endowment, the charity of emotion, the charity which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery which it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates'.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

"Give me land - lots of land - under starry skies above..."

Almost every speaker in every conference session I went to in Melbourne (see previous posting) began by a ‘welcome to country’ message, paying respect to the original owners of the land, in this case the Wurundjeri people. This made me feel quite uncomfortable (incidentally, my discomfort rating went off the scale at this exhibition - as doubtless it was meant to); it was one thing to hear it said once or twice, but when it’s said by everyone, it begins to lose meaning and to become a bit ritualistic. And maybe a substitute for giving back the land, which clearly isn't going to happen anytime soon . I asked an Australian friend about the 'paying respect' thing– she explained that they did it because representatives of the Wurundjeri people had asked them to. So I suppose that makes it OK. I got away without doing it because I’d have felt a fraud – instead I apologised for not doing it, explaining, truthfully, that as an overseas visitor I felt I needed to understand more. But it set me thinking about the social justice issue in relation to land in the UK. We have no aboriginal people – Robert Winder’s excellent book, Bloody Foreigners (not recommended for reading on trains near Daily Mail readers as they may not appreciate the irony) shows how few of us Brits are anything other than foreigners, depending on how far back you go (not very, in my case, I’m proud to say). The Land Registry is currently trying to identify who owns our land – and 40% of it is unregistered. Clearly, quite a lot of it is owned by various dukes and churches, who came by it in questionable ways. But I don't hear much from social justice advocates in the UK about land ownership. Perhaps if we all owned a fairer share of the land, we’d be happier people, or perhaps not. One of my fellow speakers would have a view – he was Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission of Bhutan. Bhutan, much of whose population lives at World Bank poverty level, measures GNH on seven 'wellness' criteria - Economic; Environmental; Physical; Mental; Workplace; Social; and Political. It’s also the only country in the world to have banned the sale of tobacco, so it’s not the place to go looking for Ken Clarke or David Hockney. Karma seemed a very happy fellow himself, and it made me happy that the local media were only interested in him so he had to do the early morning news programmes – so I sat in bed at 7.30 drinking my morning tea and watching him ‘live’ (on all previous visits to Aus I've been asked, in their phrase, to ‘do media’ which has usually meant a visit to an otherwise deserted radio station early in the morning or long after my cocoa and slippers time.). It (Bhutan, in case I’ve lost you) is a democracy whose monarch set an age limit for monarchs, and abdicated in favour of his much younger son. I can’t remember the age, but I think it would probably mean that we would have neither Betty nor Chuck enthroned. And that would make me happy too.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Back to Telegrams and Anger

OK, that's summer done with; after all that lazing in the sun over Pimms, it's back to telegrams and anger. In my absence from this space, I've completed a report on the social justice consequences of global climate change and how British foundations might respond. You can download it here. I've also done my bit for climate change by flying to Australia to speak at a conference on mental health; not, as I made clear in advance to the organisers, that this is my field, but they had a philanthropy bit to which I contributed. The papers will doubtless be online in the fullness of time. This brief entry is just to get going after the break - a ''proper' entry will follow when I get a) round to it, and b) over the cold I picked up in the metal tube in which I resided for 21 hours last weekend...

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Making History

I've just been at a meeting of the International Human Rights Funders Group in a hot and sticky New York. My job there was to speak about the challenges of evaluating human rights projects, based on work I’ve done in the past year or two evaluating projects funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies. It's clear that US funders have 'got' the notion that evaluation should be about learning, and not zero-sum success/failure judgements, though the issue of just when a funder is justified in withdrawing funding is still left hanging. However, recent experiences at the hand of evaluators, rather than as one, have left me pondering their responsibilities, and those of the funders who hire them, as historians. I can’t recall who said that 'journalism is the first rough draft of history'; but for social change projects funded by trusts, evaluators may be the first drafters. And if it matters at all to those that come after us, then they had better get it right. To do that, they need good evidence which tells the story as it was perceived at the time. (I recall a fellow student in the Law Department at Manchester in the 60s trying to sell his old legal history book. We were always told that it was dangerous to buy anything but the latest edition of all our textbooks - probably just a racket to keep academics in royalties - but he got round this by advertising it as 'old edition but more valuable since written nearer the time of the events').

Rather like those novels which have the same episode described from different perspectives (this is a great example) peoples' perceptions of how change came about can vary enormously. I have very sharp memories of an organisation set up around 1990/91 and am clear – had thought I was clear - about how it began. Till the evaluator rang, and told me how she thought, or had been told, it began. Which was totally different from what I believed (and actually still believe). And I was there at the time! Can my memory really be so dodgy? (rhetorical question; no hurtful comments needed). I'm sure that there are PhDs about this kind of issue, but for the moment, at a more prosaic level, it seems to me to highlight the need for funders to keep good records, not just with an eye to the auditors and the Charity Commission, but with an eye to history.

So: here's my idea – every organisation, including of course grant-making trusts, should appoint someone on its staff to be its history champion. This should be an enthusiast – someone who cares about history. They would, as it were, be licensed to ask awkward questions about what's being kept where, whether records are clear enough for future generations to understand what really happened, whether a story has been told and captured. As evaluators will tell you, just keeping minutes of meetings isn't much help; you need to be able to see the wood (the full story) rather than the trees (the minutes). I can hear both readers of this blog yelling at their screens – hasn't he heard of knowledge management? (and I must say, mother, that I'm surprised you have). Well, yes, I have, actually; but this isn't about managing knowledge for contemporary use; it’s about making sure that posterity has a fair chance of finding out what really happened.

And I know I'm right about that project, so there.

[This blog will now be doing whatever blogs do when they go on holiday. But there's an even better one to keep you entertained in the meanwhile, which you can find here. I will resume in the autumn unless I get a lot of encouragement/bribes not to.]

Sunday, 29 June 2008

A Breakfast Encounter

I had breakfast with a man from Pittsburgh the other day. Actually he was from a small town just outside Pittsburgh. And while we were having breakfast, at a very pleasant B&B in a town called Harper's Ferry 66 miles outside Washington DC, he told us (I was with my wife and son) that "we don't have any blacks in our town -- that's a good thing of course". Avoiding a collective choke on our freshly baked blueberry muffins, (oh, yes - on this blog you get recipes), one of us - not me - batted this away with "well, different people have different views". Reflecting on it afterwards, it occurred to me that what was worrying about the episode was not just that he held the views he did -- of course many people in the USA and probably in the UK hold those views -- but that he felt quite able to share them with complete strangers. As someone who is rooting for Obama, it was a reality check. Will Americans really elect a black man to the highest office in the land? And if they do, how will my breakfast friend react?

For social justice philanthropoids, this kind of thing reminds us of the importance of attitudes, and of what becomes respectable in polite society. I'm not sure whether somewhere in the universities there are bright people who understand how these things change and change for good. When I studied law at Manchester University in the late 1960s, my most inspiring teacher was the late Harry Street (sadly no easily findable link to him - he wrote the first edition of a seminal book called 'Freedom the Individual and the Law', still published but in a new edition by Geoffrey Robertson) who at that time was working with a young lawyer called Geoffrey Howe (wonder if he ever made anything of himself...?) on the UK's second Race Relations Act. Harry believed in the power of legislation to shape expressed attitudes, if only because generally people want to be law-abiding. Given, he said, that legislation had made racism respectable in South Africa, why should it not make it disrespectable in the UK? I have always thought that time has proven him right in the UK (with other 'isms' as well) but I’m not sure about the USA.

There are some ironies here - Harper’s Ferry is the site of an 1859 raid by John Brown on an armoury, in order to use the weapons to liberate slaves (he was caught and hanged in neighbouring Charles Town, which is why his body lies a moulderin’ etc, though I guess it would be by now anyway). And it’s the USA which may be about to elect a black head of state and chief executive; no sign of anyone non-Caucasian anywhere near the monarchy or number 10 yet. As so often with this blog, I’m not sure where this rumination takes me, except I do wish we’d spend more time understanding how attitudes change, at least to the extent that people don’t feel it’s OK to say prejudiced things to complete strangers over breakfast.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Pay Them

There will be great celebration in the land to mark the publication of the new version of CC11. (No one reading this blog will need telling that this is the Charity Commission for England and Wales’ guidance on trustee expenses and payments, so I won’t mention that). Front pages the world over will be held. But enough! Enough cynicism. This matters. For grant making trusts, it matters in social justice terms. CC11 bangs on about voluntary trusteeship being a ‘defining characteristic’ of the voluntary sector; well maybe, as it now seems to be OK to pay charity bosses whatever the market rate is, though what this market is, given the vast range of fields of activity covered by the sector, is never really explained. But that truism shouldn’t be used to avoid facing up to the real issue; why should the power of spending other people’s money in order to tackle social injustice be overwhelmingly vested with those who have no firsthand experience of that injustice? However busy we get training people to be trustees or grant makers or whatever, we can’t train people to experience social exclusion – surely one of the best qualifications for making grants to tackle it. And – shock horror – poor people may need paying in order to be able to afford to be trustees. Isn’t it just a bit irritating that the whole debate about paying trustees has been conducted in terms of professionals - solicitors, accountants, estate agents (OK I know, but it’s a sunny day and I’m feeling magnanimous) - who want to charge for their time? So: here’s a suggestion – anyone in salaried or fee-paid professional employment should not be permitted to be paid as a trustee (yes, there’ll be problems identifying them, but we can find ways and if it quacks like a duck etc etc); whereas for those who are unemployed or on low wages or who have little control over the use of their own paid time, there is at least a presumption that it’s OK to pay them to share their valuable experience as part of a board of trustees. In this market at least, solicitors and accountants are two a penny; whereas those who understand from experience the problems facing socially excluded people are few and far between on grant making boards. So – let the logic of the market prevail. Pay them.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Nothing Better to Do?

What? Two postings in two days? Has the man nothing better to do? Fear not; just a brief note to point out an interesting (to UK philanthropoids anyway) article - the top story, in fact - in yesterday's New York Times, exploring the apparently growing challenges to the tax-exempt status of US charities, on a variety of grounds - for example, when is a nonprofit a business? does a nonprofit hospital give enough to charity care to earn its exemption? (cf the 'public benefit' test as now applied to fee-paying schools here in the UK) . You can read it here.

Monday, 26 May 2008


The New Yorker is a wonderful magazine -- the best. Anyone disagree with that? No, I thought not. Barely a week goes by without me being excited or moved or challenged by something in it. This week, it was all three, in a remarkable - and beautifully written - account of a church-based day centre for homeless people in Manhattan. Ian Frazier's stories of the writers’ workshop which is attached to a soup kitchen, the effect it has had on people and the changes it has brought about in their lives are truly impressive. The soup kitchen is clearly about more than soup.

But it is its funding which was the challenging bit. After all, the very phrase ‘soup kitchen’ symbolises everything that’s wrong about old-style philanthropy. My mentor in this world is (of course) Joseph Rowntree. In December 1904, he used the example of the York soup kitchen to explain why he wanted the trusts he was then setting up to focus on tackling the causes of problems rather than the symptoms. He wrote that ‘The Soup Kitchen in York never has difficulty in obtaining adequate financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support’.

I’ve bought into that approach to philanthropy in a big way. I distinguish between individual heartfelt responses to need, and institutional foundation responses. It's one thing to dip into your pocket when somebody waves a tin outside Sainsbury's on a Saturday morning, or to write a cheque after you've been moved to tears by images of suffering on television. But it’s quite another when you have the opportunity to sit and reflect, to look at written applications, to deliberate on a committee; institutions don’t have tear ducts.

But that’s not how it looks from the other end of the process. Frazier, writing about the funding of the soup kitchen, says of the foundations -

… they are well-intentioned and generous but subject to moods. "Donor burnout" is one of those. Fashions in charitable giving also come and go. Recently, foundation charity has been more focused on "making a difference," an idea that works against the soup kitchen, which changes people from hungry to not, but invisibly. Also, foundation donors now like to talk about "measurable outcomes" -- they expect recipients like the soup kitchen to single out the people who are helped, and measure the improvement in those people situations over time. Again, that's not something the soup kitchen, with the off-the-street population it serves, can easily do. In the past 18 months, several major foundation donors have dropped out, and no replacements have been found.

It would be very interesting to have Frazier debate the issue openly with someone from one of those foundations. We (I’m not permanently associated with a foundation at present, but I feel part of the foundation community) ought to be willing to open these issues up for discussion, and the power relationship being what it is, if we don’t do it, no-one else will. I’m struck by how few opportunities there are for this kind of discussion – most UK foundations have websites, but very few use them in any bi-directional way; it’s all about ‘these are our policies, this is how to apply; take it or leave it, and we certainly don’t want to know what you out there think about us’. Frazier’s candour is unusual, and should make us think hard – not least about why we have to read this stuff in the New Yorker, as distinct from hearing it as part of our day-to-day business.