The Philanthropy Paradox – what is the relationship between philanthropy and philanthropists?

Prism, the Gift Fund, recently launched The Philanthropy Paradox, a research report based on the attitudes to philanthropy among the British public. The paradox at the heart of the report is that 84% believe that giving makes things better for people and society, but only 69% think philanthropists are good for society. Among those on low incomes, this figure falls to 53%.

Put simply, the report suggests philanthropists are not held in particularly high esteem, especially among those who are most likely to have come into contact with their work.

This paradox raises some interesting challenges and questions. Firstly, it speaks to how we judge those who voluntarily give up their private wealth for the benefit of wider society.

We know from our own research among 1,300 wealthy individuals last year that only 39% describe their giving as philanthropy, preferring the term “charitable giving”.  More worryingly, one-third said the fear of judgement from family and friends was likely to stop them from making a major gift. This figure rises to almost half among those under the age of 40.

Giving – especially making large gifts – says a lot about the kind of person you are, the values you hold and what issues in the world matter to you. If wealthy people worry about the views of those closest to them, the negative judgement of wider society will undoubtedly exacerbate their fears.

This matters because if we fail to give active encouragement and support to those taking their first steps toward major giving, then it is the charitable sector that loses most. Negative judgements choke philanthropy, stopping individuals making the step from regular giving to major support.

The second challenge is more nuanced and speaks to the complex relationship between philanthropy and philanthropists.

In recent years, philanthropy has become the subject both of academic study and of media scrutiny. Academics focus on the lessons that can be learnt, practices that can be improved and impact that can be measured. Meanwhile the media focuses on individual accountability, analysing the motives and means of philanthropists to ensure society gets a fairer deal for all.

The work of both groups is essential in a well-governed society, but it also presupposes that individual philanthropists are taking part in a team sport with well-established rules of engagement.

In reality, philanthropy has a heritage spanning continents, cultures and millennia. Its rules are a matter of ethics: an evolving debate about how the practice of philanthropy can benefit wider society.

While important, this debate is distant from an individual’s desire to give. Indeed, many experienced donors baulk at the term “philanthropist” because their gifts reflect their unique circumstances, interests and passions making it a solo contribution, more than a societal act. The label also puts an unhelpful barrier between them and the charitable organisations and people with whom they work.

The distinction between philanthropy and philanthropists is indeed a paradox, and, as with all paradoxes, it points to a deeper truth. If the wider British public lacks confidence in philanthropists it is because the word marks them out as distinct from the society they seek to serve. Experienced donors, themselves, also fear this heterogeneity.

Yet to increase philanthropy, we need also to increase the number of philanthropists. That is, individuals who seek to deepen their engagement in society through giving money, time and their skills and networks. In this endeavour, actions will be more important than words.

Philanthropists must root their work in the communities they support. In parallel, society must recognise it will gain more by treating those who give thoughtfully in service of a better society with greater nuance and care.

There is a better outcome for all if we critique the practices of philanthropy and not those who practise it.