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Government, Community, Philanthropy:

Andrew Watt explores a three-pronged relationship for social good.

It’s hard to look at any social, political, religious or artistic initiative at any point in our history and not find that philanthropy or philanthropists have been part of it. As drivers, facilitators, partners and investors.

Yet when you read the accounts, whether historical or current, it’s hard to see that recurring theme reflected.

“Why is philanthropy so little considered?”

It’s not often that philanthropy stands alone. At its most effective it’s a partner of government and communities, without whom it could not achieve its aims. Equally, without philanthropy as a driver of ideas, many initiatives of government would simply not get off the ground.

So what does philanthropy provide so consistently that has ensured its continued role? And why is philanthropy so little considered?

Philanthropists are creative. In their personal and professional lives, they are often entrepreneurial, willing to undertake strategic risk to get things done – and accepting that failure, while possible, also brings opportunities to refine and redefine in its wake.

“The dynamism of philanthropy is part of its DNA.”

Philanthropists are driven to make change or intervene to secure impact. It’s not the process but the outcome that matters. Indeed, undue focus on process is one of the reasons that philanthropists take action or intervene. It’s the catalytic aspect of philanthropic action that can drive government and community engagement.

The dynamism of philanthropy is part of its DNA. A strong and strategic partner in government can bring long term sustainability, structured partnerships and funding to the table. Engaged community partners ensure a sense of ownership and relevance. Separately, much can be achieved: together, the impact can be transformational.

If you look around the UK it’s not hard to find examples of this. The regeneration of coastal towns such as St Ives, Folkestone and Margate; projects in Bishop Auckland, Gloucester, Nottingham and many others show the combined impact of creative philanthropy, local government investment in strategic infrastructure and delivery by communities coming together to achieve extraordinary, lasting social and economic change.

In all these cases employment, education, transport and health services have been critical. Government sponsored programmes of investment and local authority support have been essential. None of the outcomes in these areas could have been achieved without the active participation of the state. But all of them share something more – an indefinable sense of well being that derives from the human aspect brought by community engagement and philanthropy.

“Any act of philanthropy is ultimately the result of the passion, drive and perspective of an individual.”

Armenian venture philanthropist, Ruben Vardanyan, has invested in strategic aspects of the infrastructure of Armenia for many years. His intention (and that of his partners) has been to arrive at a tipping point that enables Armenia to look to a sustainable future and successful growth.

But what he has identified along that journey is that, for a community to truly thrive, its members have to have a sense of happiness and wellbeing beyond what derives from social and economic security. Indefinable, yes, but something that government programmes and state sponsored initiatives could not provide.

That human dimension is a critical aspect of philanthropy. Any act of philanthropy is ultimately the result of the passion, drive and perspective of an individual. In conjunction with members of communities (of experience, of interest, geographic or social) success derives from human qualities; intelligence, passion, pragmatism. Individuals form a critical part in driving government action and policy – but policy is not personal. It may be strategic but it’s not intended to be engaging.

“The individuals responsible for developing government policy need to have an understanding and appreciation of the power of philanthropy.”

Policy provides a framework. Strategic investment builds platforms and sustainability. And this is where government is a key partner to philanthropy. By building in conjunction with the entrepreneurialism and flexibility of philanthropic and social capital, government intervention can hope for far greater success.

For this to happen the individuals responsible for developing government policy need to have an understanding and appreciation of the power of philanthropy – and its complimentary rather than conflicting role in relation to government strategy.

Initiatives driven by social and philanthropic investment have an inherent nimbleness and flexibility that statutory programmes don’t. If changes need to be made, they can be enacted rapidly. If one approach fails, a line can be drawn, lessons learned can be applied and another developed.

As a recurring element in successful change and impact, philanthropy needs to be considered as a core driver by government. Its potential should be a factor on the table in every government strategy unit.

“If philanthropy is to be effective, government departments need to be consistent in policy and approach, understanding the wide benefits of philanthropy.”

Civil servants and politicians need familiarity with examples of philanthropic partnerships that have driven and delivered change in communities. Philanthropy is part of the bank of assets to be drawn on. Beyond familiarity, what can government do to encourage philanthropists to engage as partners? 

A key is to recognise the need to harmonise government policy towards philanthropy itself. If philanthropy is to be effective, government departments need to be consistent in policy and approach, understanding the wide benefits of philanthropy. 

The proposal being made as part of the work of Pro Bono Economics (proposed in Beacon Collaborative’s 2021 research) represents a pragmatic approach to achieving a joined-up understanding of the value of philanthropy and consistency across strands of government policy and departments.

To have one individual – a “philanthropy commissioner” – working across departments and highlighting added and tangible value deriving from philanthropic and social investment could be transformational. It also has the advantage of being both affordable and sustainable.

Understanding what philanthropists need to support their engagement and helping to implement an effective regulatory platform that underpins and does not constrain philanthropy is critical. 

Philanthropic capital typically represents a relatively small percentage of total wealth in financial terms: in emotional terms, however, it represents what is most important to an individual or their family. Philanthropic capital is generally managed from the same platform as a family’s main wealth – so, in terms of self-interest, the benefits to the UK in attracting philanthropic capital and investment could also be significant.

“Partnerships between philanthropy, government and community are complex […]but have the capacity to deliver sustainable impact.”

In short, partnerships between philanthropy, government and community are complex, as are the benefits deriving from them. But, when successful, the outcomes of those partnerships are not only transformational but additionally have the capacity to deliver sustainable impact beyond the cycle of one or two successive terms of office. In some cases, over many generations.

The question, surely, is why, with so many examples of success, we can’t secure more?

Andrew Watt is a director of Third Sector Strategy, a consultancy serving the needs of the third sector in policy, communications, strategic development, community engagement and advocacy.

Andrew’s career has been in the social sector for 25 years; in his professional capacity and as a volunteer. His various roles have seen him advocate for fundraising and resource mobilisation across the globe: in Westminster, Brussels, Ottawa and Washington DC., building partnerships, convening and facilitating essential debate.

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