Seizing the philanthropic prize
The role of the UK government in
Each year, members of the UK public voluntarily donate nearly £20 billion of their own funds to help make possible the work of tens of thousands of charities, employing hundreds of thousands of people and providing services, opportunities and stronger communities for millions across the country. This generosity has long been a part of British culture, and that has never been more evident than it was during the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis.
There is a clear and recognised need to steward how this money is both raised and spent to ensure it has the greatest possible impact, roles fulfilled to varying degrees by the Charity Commission and the Fundraising Regulator. However, there is also a significant opportunity to grow this stream of funding towards public good. If the British population gave a similar share of their wealth to charity as the New Zealand or Canadian populations, this would generate an additional £5 billion in annual donations.
All sectors have a role to play in achieving this. The private sector is an important source of both cash and skills. The charity sector and its institutional funders have to innovate and adapt to changing trends in donor behaviour. And governments – both local and national, UK and devolved – have a number of powerful levers in their hands which they could utilise to grow charitable giving in the UK.
Governments can help to set the tone about philanthropy in the areas they’re responsible for, directly and indirectly encouraging individuals to give. They can convene across sectors to unite organisations with a common purpose. They can actively partner with philanthropists, grant-makers and charities to leverage greater funding through matchgiving schemes. And the UK government in particular can improve regulation, guidance, taxation and the measurement of philanthropy to make giving more effective and impactful.
Action by the UK government to bolster giving across the country would not only support the charity sector, communities and beneficiaries, but also actively help the government to better achieve its goals.
Philanthropy and the UK government will never have perfectly aligned objectives, regardless of leadership or priorities at any given time. They both have their own functions to fulfil within society, with philanthropy often able to take greater risks, move more quickly and invest for the longer-term though at a smaller scale than government. But there are benefits to be had in both sides leveraging the strengths of the other, for example for government to harness learnings from the innovative programmes philanthropy funds, and for the philanthropy sector to have greater insight into government’s direction to identify opportunities of its own. And there is a wealth of overlap between what both sectors are trying to achieve. Philanthropists and the charities they fund are working every day to improve employment outcomes, to boost education and skills, and to reduce inequalities in life expectancy – to name but a few.
But with only a third of a civil servant’s time currently dedicated to philanthropy policy, alongside a small number of civil servants responsible for some relevant taxation, the UK government current does not have the coordination, resource and expertise needed to seize these opportunities.
Looking at how the UK government works with businesses and how the US government works with philanthropy can provide us with the building blocks by which to achieve more philanthropic investment and collaboration. These models tell us that government needs individuals in leadership positions who are able to translate between sectors and are accessible to both the rest of Whitehall and the philanthropy sector; individuals who draw on the knowledge of philanthropists either directly or by working closely with the sector. Those individuals needs to have a helicopter-view across government activity to identify practical opportunities, and to be trusted by the rest of government.