Sunday, October 07, 2007

New Philanthropy?

Some charities do an excellent job – I always donate to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Guide Dogs for the Blind. However, there’s always that residual image of Lord and Lady Bountiful graciously distributing alms to ‘the deserving poor’.

Right up until the creation of the welfare state in 1945, charities played a dominant role in health, social services and housing. What they couldn’t do was create a national framework with minimum statutory provision – they didn’t have the resources. Instead there was a patchwork of competing charities with services varying widely between different cities.

When I was in America most schools depended on handouts from foundations, trusts or charities. It was almost a way of life, every school hired staff working full time on various bids. One charter school had a well connected board member who raised $1 million in donations. But most money was time limited so it was a hand to mouth, feast or famine existence.

On a national scale ‘New Philanthropy’ has become an institution with its main cheer leader Bill Clinton and his ‘Global Initiative’.

At a recent bash in the Sheraton Hotel, New York, Clinton lured a thousand of the world’s richest, each paying $15,000 for the privilege. Just to add some glitz and glamour Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) attended.

Last year Americans donated $295 billion to charities, equal to the Gross Domestic Product of Poland. 65 million US households gave an average of $2,000 each.

New Philanthropy has risen alongside an increase in inequality – according to official figures 12.3% of Americans live in poverty.

However, most of the charitable donations don’t reach the poor. About a third of gifts are made to religious organisations and much of the remainder is handouts by rich people to already rich institutions – museums (in 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art was given $26.52 million in private donations – in 2000 one donor gave $73.7 million), Ivy League colleges (Harvard received $196 million in 2005 and got $50 million from the Ford Foundation in 1998) and being America, pets scooped up 2% of the total.

By one estimate, only 10% of charitable donations go to projects working with people in poverty.

Whilst we can’t match the scale of ‘New Philanthropy’ we have our own version with Red Nose Day, Children in Need and high profile donations by business men and pop stars. What’s missing in all this? The role of government.

When it comes to education you can use taxes to fund an equitable well resourced comprehensive system (Scandinavia) or you can rely on charitable handouts in a patchwork of unequal selective schools (America).

Which model is England moving towards?

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What you mentioned about the poor in America for the most part not seeing the charity is true. When I lived in New York I would split my charity. One would go to some institution. The other I would try to find someone who was homeless or poor and give it directly to them. Sometimes I would simply take food left over from my synagogue and give it to a group of homeless who slept in front of a church every night. It wasn't much in the way of helping them out of poverty, but at least they could eat. I figure that if everyone at least helped make sure that they have a meal to eat, that could be a start in making it more direct without the middle man.
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