Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

further thoughts on US vs UK giving

10 March 2014

I alluded briefly in my previous post about CAF’s recent “Give Me a Break” report to the parliamentary event we held to accompany its launch. I thought, however, that it would be worth another post to examine some of the detail of what was said at that round-table and also to pick up on a couple of other things that have followed from the publication of the report.

Our Parliamentary event turned out to be (more by accident than design, I have to admit) the first time that the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, has shared a platform with his shadow, Lisa Nandy. This sparked a reasonable amount of interest in the trade press. Intriguingly, there were signs of a difference in opinion between the two politicians. You might think that there is nothing surprising about there being disagreement between a Tory and a Labour politician, but philanthropy/charitable giving as a policy area does have a tendency to result in “motherhood and apple pie” discussions in which everyone agrees that everything is marvelous, so some dissent in the ranks is noteworthy!

changing attitudes

The key difference centered around the idea that we should celebrate the activities and achievements of wealthy philanthropists more readily in the UK than we do currently. Nick Hurd was of the view that this was one area where the UK could definitely stand to be more like the US. Lisa Nandy, however, was more cautious, arguing that we should be careful not to over-focus on the rich and that in her view a teenager who gives £2 a month is just as deserving of praise.

This led on to a discussion of the role of philanthropic funding in relation to taxation and public spending, in which Lisa Nandy put forward what one would imagine to be the default Labour line: that while philanthropy can play an important role, it should only happen after people have paid their fair share of tax. Nick Hurd did not directly take issue with this (unsurprisingly!), but did stress the importance of tax incentives in ensuring high levels of giving.

Valuable American insight

It was great to hear some of these issues being addressed, because part of the motivation behind writing the report was to introduce an element of grit into the oyster when it comes to talking about charitable giving, in order to get away from some of the comfortable platitudes that can tend to dominate such discussions.

Hearing the response of actual Americans to the report has also been interesting. At the parliamentary event were a number of US citizens, who raised interesting additional points about differences between the two countries (such as the fact that charity trustees in the US are also expected to give to the organisation they are a trustee of, which is often not the case in the UK). They also confirmed some of the reports conclusions. One American attendee, for instance, said that she couldn’t really understand the amount of hand-wringing the UK tends to do about eqaulity when it comes to philanthropy, and that in the US, where philanthropy is much more clearly seen as a positive thin, they don’t have those concerns. Perhaps this reinforces my argument that we wouldn’t necessarily want to copy the US in every way?

The report was also picked up by the Nonprofit Quarterly in the US, who ran a good article about the findings and published our infographic in full! The article did a good line in mock bewilderment that we in the UK could possibly have reason not to want to copy the way things are done in the US, and is worth a read.

In case this post seems dangerously like an exercise in self-congratulation, I should also note some of the criticisms leveled at the report. Most of these were of the “you have missed the point, because actually the real reason is X” kind. I always fee that these ciriticisms miss the point themselves that in a paper of this length you can’t hope to cover everything. They also tend to reflect the  personal or professional interests of the person making the criticism to a large extent.

With those caveats in mind, some of the criticisms were:

  • There is too much focus in the report on differences in taxation, which is less important than differences in culture.

  • You haven’t mentioned impact and the role that this plays in the US

  • You’ve missed the point because the real difference is that in the US they focus on the “donor journey“

And my brief responses to these are:

  • I agree that culture is the more important factor, but I thought that I had made this clear in the report? I would loved to have gone into some of the issues in more detail, and might well do in future, but practicality dictated a bit more brevity.

  • Nope- that’s a  fair cop. This is partly because I couldn’t cover everything, but it is also a reflection of the fact that I was talking about charitable giving in the broad sense rather than philanthropy amongst wealthier donors, and I think that impact measurement is less important an issue at a “retail” level than it is when focusing on higher-end donors.

  • Again, I agree that this is an important difference, but I intended it to be seen as one of the elements of the “more developed fundraising industry” in the US that I reference in the report. I would also argue that the idea of a donor journey, whilst important, does not on its own explain the differences between the US and the UK highlighted in the report.

Anyway, it was great to spark some debate, and we definitely intend to keep this conversation going as we publish more reports and discussion papers on a range of issues affecting charities and charitable giving over the coming year.