Is it, as iconic 19th century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie would have it, easier to give away money well than to earn it in the first place?
That theory is put to the test in ‘The Money’, a piece of participative theatre from the Kaleider Theatre Company currently showing at Battersea Arts Centre. It gathers a group of ‘benefactors’ around a table and asks them to unanimously decide in 90 minutes how to spend a pot of money they have donated, watched on by a group of ‘silent witnesses’.
As one of those silent witnesses I was riveted, appalled, bemused, frustrated and heartened by the twists and turns the conversation took and the bonkers and beautiful ideas generated as the largely homogenous group of enlightened, well-educated mostly young adults bonded over the best way to spend £167.
Should it buy a dog they could share, an extravagant wreath for the first among them to die or seeds to grow a community? Should it be gambled, invested or frittered on drinks at the bar for them all? Should it be given to charity as a lump sum or in small amounts, donated to the Nepal relief effort, or hidden in library books as an act of kindness for lucky readers to find?
Each idea unleashed a raft of issues that mirror those that real-life philanthropists wrestle with as they aim to achieve the greatest impact from their limited donated resources.
How could the ideas that serve dearly held passions be made real and the practicalities of them addressed – would a tortoise be more cost-effective than a dog? Who would organise a fundraiser if they used the money to hold one? Did they have a stockbroker who could invest their money?
Then discussions started to emerge about strategy and how they might achieve the greatest impact. Could the fund be leveraged? Perhaps the pot could be matched by us fly-on-the-wall witnesses; or, in a way, ‘endowed’ – left to roll over to the next night’s performance, which was the default position if a unanimous decision could not be reached. Would it have more value if it was spent abroad and could it be gift-aided?
At points throughout the evening some expressed giving to charity was actually a boring thing to do – could it instead be spent on something benefitting the group for a once-in-a-life-time thrill? Indeed could it entertain us into the bargain – let’s have a singing competition and let the winner take all X Factor style. (Let’s not!)
The tension tick-tocked between altruism and self-interest until, with 55 minutes on the big, red, digital countdown clock that blinked urgently from a corner of the room, one benefactor threw a bomb into the middle of the discussion – he would not sign up to a decision unless he could take home half the pot for himself!
The group were surprisingly accommodating – for a while - as this member tested the rules having spied a loophole; if the decision had to be unanimous he could hold the group to ransom and benefit himself. In fact he had highlighted the importance of good governance in philanthropy and how crucial a part trust plays – we trust philanthropists and charities to act well. But sometimes they don’t, even when obeying the rules. It’s up to trustees to hold each other to account.
And so they did. As 32 minutes showed on the clock, a young female benefactor decided enough was enough and challenged Mr 50% directly: “Your wish to take half the money is vulgar and I find it upsetting. We had been talking about all sorts of things that inspired us and now this has become about one person.”
Another chimed in: “This is just grandstanding and all we are discussing is the rules. Let’s go back to the conversation.”
Then a happening - two of the silent witnesses stepped in. The rules shared at the start of The Money state that silent witnesses can ‘buy in’ to the decision-making process by donating at least £10, and, with dramatic clang, signal their involvement by ringing a hefty bell.
The two university students put down their 20 quid and chimed in - imploring Mr 50% - in effect a sort of social investor - to not pocket half for his own ends and for all the money to be given to charity, reasoning none of us in the room really needed it if we could afford to splash out £13 on a theatre ticket. Though pressed for a response Mr 50% refused to answer and offered a weak “I don’t know what to say”. (Afterwards he admitted he had arrived at the theatre having decided he was going to throw in the ’I’ll take half’ curve ball to ginger up the discussion, but was taken aback by the level of anger it provoked.)
Then the bell rang out again – Lucy, a more mature woman, who clearly had some sort of leadership training, had become frustrated with the lack of progress. Putting in her donation she entered the fray – “could everybody stand up, walk around the room, sit in a new chair and then say one thing they would like the money to go to? She hoped by changing the group’s perspective she could get them to literally move on. Yes, philanthropy needs leadership.
Some responded offering their favourite charity – Storybook for Dads, Arts Emergency, and then another left-field idea was proffered - could the money be used to pay a fine for doing something law-breaking like punching David Cameron?
The discussion faltered until the bell rang out again. Matt, a young guy, creative of hair and mild of manner, stepped in with a disruptive digital solution; the group should split the money evenly and spend it on what they wanted, but share their experience via a blog, thus staying connected with the group.
Bingo! This idea resonated and after a bit of discussion about the terms and conditions, the benefactors began to sign up to it.
Would our ‘social investor’ sign up? In a dramatic flounce he chose, with minutes to go. to exit the deal completely – as the rules state: benefactors could up and leave at any time by ringing the bell and leaving the table.
So we had arrived at a unanimous decision – and paradox central – the group had effectively made a group decision not to make a group decision! In effect they took their money back to spend it as they wished, but in a way that they could continue to enjoy the experience of being a member of a giving group. They saw the value in the sharing of giving and peer support – just as members of real giving networks do.
So - is it hard to be a benefactor and spend donated money? Clearly. Is it even harder to agree with others on how you do that? - all tolled, a resounding ‘yes’.
Be quick! The Money finishes its run at Battersea Arts Centre tonight May 1st – book here