Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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26 April 2018

Civil Society Futures, the independent inquiry into the future of civil society has today published a report summarising the key findings from their first year. This makes for interesting reading, and I definitely recommend checking it out.

I want to highlight what I see as some of the most interesting findings of the report briefly below. I found it particularly exciting to see how closely the issues they identify align with the projects and themes we are working on at CAF.

So whilst some of this might look like shamelessly plugging our own work, it is more just a reflection of the fact that we agree that these are core issues for the future - to the extent that we have been shaping our own work around them too. It’s also easier to signpost to our thinking on these topics elsewhere rather than try to fit it all in one blog!

death and taxes


As part of our Future:Good project, we have been exploring the impact of AI on philanthropy and civil society for a while. Some of this impact will be positive, as civil society organisations (CSOs) harness the technology to deliver greater social and environmental impact in the future. However, AI will also have an impact on CSOs themselves and the environment they operate in.

For example, it could have radical implications for the ways in which we are able to give in the future (as explored in Automatic for the People and Robotic Alms). AI will also have much wider impacts on society, and on the people and communities that CSOs are supposed to serve. Hence it is vital that civil society has a role in shaping the debate over the future of this technology (as argued in this piece on how charities need to get to grips with AI, and in our submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on AI).


It is certainly true that people increasingly want transparency. The success of the Open Data movement is testament to that, and we have argued that this could play a key role in developing giving at a local level by establishing the evidence base (e in this blog on Open Data for 360 Giving).

Technology is also making it possible to achieve a degree of ‘radical transparency’ that is unprecedented. This will bring opportunities for philanthropy and CSOs, but also some big challenges. We have explored these issues in detail in our work on blockchain technology


We have also noticed the growing number of examples of movements and networks arising outside traditional civil society structures, often in response to particular event (e.g. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #NeverAgain). This phenomenon has been dubbed “New Power” by the authors Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, and we recently interviewed Jeremy on our Giving Thought podcast to get his thoughts on what it might mean for civil society and philanthropy.

We have also explored decentralisation in the context of blockchain technology in a number of reports and blog posts.


It seems as though there is an increasing focus on place in all sorts of contexts. There is also a recognition that cities are going to play an ever more prominent role in coming years. We have been exploring what this means for civil society, and the potential for building a 21st century culture of “civic philanthropy”, through our Giving for the City project.


The travails of the media industry are well publicised. Long-term declines in advertising revenue and the shift to online have posed major challenges for traditional outlets, some of which have ceased to exist. Yet, at the same time, there is an increasing recognition of the role journalism has to play in combatting the threat of “fake news” and the erosion of public discourse. We have argued that philanthropy can play a role in combating fake news, and that there is a strong case for philanthropic support for journalism as an inherent public good.


We are often told that there is a long-term decline in trust, or even a “trust crisis”, yet it is hard to know exactly what this means in practice. Trust is a fairly abstract concept, and what people say about trust may not be reflected in their actions. CAF’s UK Giving 2018 report suggests that this may be the case for charitable giving, as levels of giving appear to have remained largely constant despite a spate of negative stories about charities over the last few years. But this is no reason to be complacent. The trust of supporters is one of the most vital assets any CSO has, and cannot be taken for granted. That is why we have explored what can be done to build trust in charitable giving through our Future World Giving research  and the follow-up Groundwork for Growing Giving project.


We identified this as one of the key challenges for civil society in the UK post-Brexit, as the EU Referendum had highlighted the fact that there were stark geographic and demographic division in our society that many of us might not have been aware of. In our A Stronger Britain report, we explored the role CSOs could play in identifying and addressing social division and building more cohesive communities.


Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an old idea that has gained new cultural cache in the wake of concerns about the impact of automation on the future of work. We explored the impact that UBI might have on philanthropy and civil society in a Giving Thought blog.


Inequality is already seen as one of the defining challenges of our times. Many CSOs address inequality and the issues that stem from it in their work. Yet inequality poses some challenges for philanthropy. In particular, it raises the question of whether philanthropy can ever be part of the solution to inequality or only ever part of the problem, since inequality is a precondition for philanthropy in the first place. This is an issue we have addressed on the Giving Thought blog and in the book Public Good by Private Means: How Philanthropy Shapes Britain.


The EU referendum vote in the UK was swiftly followed by the election of Donald Trump as US President, and this heralded a shift towards populism in many countries around the world. We have explored some of the implications for philanthropy and civil society on the Giving Thought blog (eg Philanthropy, anti-Democratic and proud of it and Closing Space or Open Season), and in the short report Brave New World 2017.

So there you go: some thoughts and a smorgasbord of hyperlinks! Hopefully what this demonstrates is that we are starting to see some convergence of opinion among the organisations making up UK civil society about what the major challenges facing us in the coming years are going to be.

The Civil Society Futures inquiry is doing some great work pushing this conversation forward, and we will continue to play our part by developing new thinking and research on many of these same issues. The next challenge beyond this will be for all of us in civil society to come together and decide what role we are going to play in addressing these challenges.

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