Marking City Giving Day (#CGD) today Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader of Giving Thought at the Charities Aid Foundation, writes on how the City can reawaken its philanthropic roots.
The City has historically been at its best when it has been a real catalyst for social progress as well as a driver of wealth creation and the beating heart of the British economy.
For hundreds of years this has happened through the philanthropic efforts of the people and companies in the capital.
The good works of the great London philanthropists from Angela Burdett-Coutts to Sir John Cass live on in institutions like the capital’s hospitals, art galleries and universities.
Initiatives like City Giving Day that bring together companies in the square mile to celebrate the good that they do, show the enduring power of the idea of combining wealth creation and generosity. Our work at the Charities Aid Foundation brings us in contact with generous Londoners every day.
So why is it that, despite the admirable efforts of a few notable individuals, there is nothing like the widespread public philanthropic culture that has been seen in the past?
There are some things we can do nothing or very little about. Religion played a vital role in motivating giving in Victorian times – and still motivates a lot of philanthropic activity today - but we can’t make everyone more pious.
But there are some things we might be able to influence. Social status was also of huge importance in the City’s philanthropic past. Since non-inherited wealth was generally looked down upon, giving to charity was seen as one of the few reliable routes for the newly-wealthy to secure their credibility in society.
This is not the case now. British hang-ups over talking about money and our aversion to "name-plaque philanthropy" means that people are often reluctant to be vocal about their giving. However, if reluctance to talk about money and what you should do with it can be overcome anywhere, then surely it is in the City?
But the biggest thing we can and should do something about is awareness of need. City figures of the past could not fail to see poverty and destitution all around them, even if they tried. They would often have to step over sick and destitute people in the streets.
Thomas Coram, for instance, the former sea captain who established the Foundling Hospital, was driven to do so when he saw a young mother literally in the act of abandoning her child and decided he could no longer ignore the problem.
Today, thankfully, such scenes are not commonplace on London streets.
But City workers do tend to be insulated from wider society. They live in wealthy enclaves, such as Holland Park and Knightsbridge or commuter towns like Oxted and Godalming , travel to the office, work very long hours, then return home again; all without really coming into contact with the reality of life for those much less fortunate than themselves.
This insulation does have an impact on generosity. Research shows that when wealthy people live in areas that are not economically diverse, they are much less likely to give.
But there is a lot of truth in the old maxim that “seeing is believing”. The evidence is that this can be reversed simply by providing a prompt, a picture or a video, which punctures the bubble that can form around many of us.
The hedge fund manager Chris Hohn, for example, began a lifelong philanthropic journey when he was a young banker on a posting in the Philippines and saw the plight of children forced to scavenge on rubbish heaps. This has resulted in hundreds of millions of pounds being given to charity through the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.
The challenge is to find ways to bridge the gap in awareness and give those working in the City meaningful opportunities to see for themselves the needs of others; and thereby activate their philanthropic instincts.
Companies play a vital role here. They can – and many do - find ways of connecting their employees with the work of charities and community groups so that they can see for themselves why there is such great need even today.
These efforts can bear great fruit – the former Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill (now Lord O’Neill), was prompted to get involved in philanthropy after taking part in a corporate programme that took employees to see the work of charities and eventually went on to co-found his own charity (SHINE).
London has a proud tradition of generosity that continues to the present day. But we can and should do more. Reconnecting those who create London's great wealth with the world outside the gilded streets of the city centre will help create a thriving culture of philanthropy in the City for generations to come.
Rhodri Davies is Programme Leader of Giving Thought at CAF. He is an expert in philanthropy and author of a forthcoming book on the history of philanthropy in the UK.