Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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15 January 2018

One of the great truisms of the human condition has always been that sooner or later, we all die. A cheery way to start a blog, I know, but as Benjamin Franklin said (perhaps not originally): “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. However, could this be about to change in the foreseeable future?

A combination of recent developments in digital technology and bioscience has opened up the possibility of conquering death. A number of organisations are exploring the possibility of indefinite life extension: for instance Calico, which is owned by Alphabet (the parent company of Google). Others are exploring whether AI can be used to create realistic chatbots based on the personalities of deceased relatives that can emulate conversations with them. Beyond that is the idea of full-blown digital emulation, which will be familiar to anyone who has watched the first episode of the most recent series of Black Mirror (“USS Callister”). This particularly resonate with me because I also spent much of the recent Christmas break reading a mind-expanding new book called “The Age of Em” by the economist Robin Hanson, which imagines a future in which whole-brain digital emulation has become commonplace and then applies rigorous social science and economic analysis to it. (Honestly, check it out- it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read).

And as ever, on this blog, I want to take something of monumental and societal importance and make it far more parochial by asking what it might mean for charities. But before I outline some thoughts on what this might mean for the future, it is worth just taking a moment to consider the role that mortality has played in the long history of philanthropy, as this will set some important context.

Death has always been a hugely important factor in the world of charity. One of the key dividing lines in terms of both the theory and practicalities of giving is whether the donor is alive or dead at the time; and there are strong schools of thought on both sides as to which if these is preferable. Historically, dead donors arguably had the upper hand as legacies and bequests were the primary vehicle for philanthropy. This led to a number of related issues: first was the fact that there was no meaningful connection between the donor (who was dead) and the recipients of their donation. This meant that there was no question of establishing an ongoing relationship, and little opportunity for flexibility and growth in how the money was distributed.

Secondly, unless the money was just given to an existing organisation, a new, dedicated structure had to be set up in the shape of a charitable trust or foundation. This then brought with it the problem of the “dead hand of the donor”: trusts would be established with certain specific purposes at a given moment in time, but over time those purposes would start to look outdated and not reflective of the real needs of the time in which the endowed organisation was operating. At the extremes, the original purpose of a trust could become so outmoded that it was literally impossible to fulfil it any more.

At this point, the legal doctrine of cy près would have to be invoked. This is a provision in charity law that allows money from a trust established for a certain purpose that can no longer be fulfilled to be used for a different, but justifiably similar purpose. However, making a cy près case can be complex and therefore it does not work that well as a solution to the “dead hand” problem at scale.

The widespread implications of this seemingly-niche issue were seen in mid 19th century London, when the proliferation of parochial trusts dating from the Tudor era became a cause celebre. Many were incensed that large sums of money were sitting in these trusts, and because their charitable purposes were often extremely narrow or archaic (e.g. a trust solely dedicated to providing funds for killing ladybirds on Cornhill, in the City of London) this money was effectively useless at a time when there were severe problems of poverty and disease in the city. A Parliamentary Inquiry was eventually established, and this resulted in new legislation being passed which gave the existing Charity Commissioners new powers to “break open” dormant funds (and laid the foundations for the modern Charity Commission for England and Wales). This still proved to be a very complex and controversial process, but in the end many dormant funds were dissolved and merged into the City Parochial Foundation (which survives to this day as the Trust for London). (If you want to read more about this history, check out my book Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain).

The wishes of dead donors can be a particularly thorny issue in cases where there are also next of kin. There have been a number of high-profile cases in which a donor’s descendants have challenged their wishes to give to a particular charity after death. Sometimes this is done on the grounds that they were not of sound mind, or that they had amended their will without the charity knowing, but challenges can also be raised by next of kin who have been deliberately cut out of wills. In 2015, for instance, three charities lost out when the Court of Appeal ruled that the estranged daughter of a woman who had left £163,000 to those organisations had a justifiable right to challenge her mother’s decision after her death. For charities these cases are often very problematic: they tend to drag on a long time, so are very expensive; and even if a charity manages to retain important legacy income that it feels it is rightly entitled to, going through a highly public legal spat with a donor’s family carries significant potential for reputational risk.

Having taken that brief detour through the history of death and philanthropy (and if you want to read more on the history of “giving while living” I recommend Ben Soskis’ work on the subject), let’s return to our main topic and ask what might technological developments in our ability to delay or overcome death mean for charity in the future?


OK so this one is perhaps cheating slightly in the context of this blog, as it doesn’t really have anything to do with life extension or changes in the nature of mortality. However, given that we have seen how important a role legacies have played in the history of philanthropy, new ways of making them more available and more secure could be quite a big deal. And blockchain technology might provide one route to achieving this. The nature of a blockchain means that it can be used to create unique, immutable, time-stamped digital objects- and this could include a will (either a representation or hash of a paper will, or perhaps the will itself could be digitised). Some companies are already offering digital notarisation services which use blockchain in precisely this way for various kinds of legal documents.

You might ask what benefit using blockchain technology brings here, given that we already use third parties like solicitors to ensure that wills are trustworthy and secure. Well, for one thing, if we could do without solicitors the cost of making and updating a will would come down radically. This might then mean that far more people actually made a will rather than dying intestate, and this would increase the number of potential charitable legacy gifts. Furthermore, since blockchain-based wills would presumably be linked to some suitable digital ID (possibly a self-sovereign identity), and would be unique, the risk of multiple wills existing would be removed. Currently this can cause problems if different expressions of a donor’s wishes conflict with each other, and may lead to legal challenge.

The further benefit (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view) of wills being totally digitised on the blockchain (as opposed to just recording the existence of a paper document) is that the execution of their terms could be automated using smart contracts. These are self-executing computer protocols that perform set actions when specified trigger conditions are satisfied, as we've discussed in Block & Tackle. If smart contracts governing the distribution of assets according to the stipulations of a will were triggered when an individual died, this could do away with the need for complicated probate processes and would massively reduce the risk of a legacy being challenged.

Of course, there might be instances in which it is justifiable and important to challenge something in a will; which raises the question of how this would work in a context where we are relying on automated smart contracts. That isn’t a question I have the answer to, but the wider question of the legal status of smart contracts and the possible methods of recourse is a hot topic in legal theory right now (see, for instance the work of Harvard academic Primavera de Filippi), so presumably someone will come up with an answer.


Moving away from how technology might change the legal process of dying, let’s get stuck into our core question of how technology might change our relationship with death itself and what that might mean for philanthropy.

Advances in medicine and public health have already raised life expectancies around the globe. It is likely this trend will continue. At the same time, advances in medical technology and biotech may mean that we can prolong individual lives for a much greater period than we can currently. If this means that there are more people living to what we would consider extreme old age (150+, perhaps), then what could this mean for philanthropy?


One obvious result could be that it creates new challenges for philanthropy to address, which we will consider in more detail in the next section. Keeping our focus for now on donors, however, the most impact is that it will change the landscape of legacy giving. Either people will continue with their intention to give when they die, and that day will be pushed further into the future so the legacy is delayed; or many people might decide to give within their own lifetimes instead, so we will see a major shift away from legacy giving towards giving while living.

This latter scenario seems more likely when you consider that a major extension of life expectancy would presumably result in a longer period of post-work life (assuming we’re not all replaced by robots anyway…), and that people would thus have more time to dedicate to a second “philanthropy career” once they have finished their primary career.

For those who made their money early on, it would also open the possibility of creating spend-down foundations - but with a lifespan more akin to many of the traditional endowed foundations we see today (i.e. if a tech donor made a billion by 30 and set up a foundation, they could feasibly have 120 years or more to oversee how it is given away).

There is a question about whether this would be actually be desirable: one of the advantages of an endowed foundation is that it is controlled by an independent board of trustees who are able, over time, to interpret the original donor’s wishes so as to remain relevant to the problems of the day. But what if that original donor is still on the board 100 years later and exerts control over it? Would it be harder for their views to adapt than those of an institution? And would a foundation thus be more likely to be stuck reflecting the time in which it was established rather than the one in which it was operating?


As mentioned above, one impact of increasing life expectancies and life extension might be the creation of new social problems that charities and civil society organisations have to address. (This is also something we touched on in an earlier blog that looked at a number of ways in which technology might present new challenges for charities).

The most obvious of these problems is overpopulation. If more people are living longer, either at a population level due to advances in public health, or at an individual level due to tailored life extension, then global population is likely to rise at an accelerated rate (assuming some Malthusian catastrophe like a global flu pandemic doesn’t kick in). Given that many areas (particularly urban ones) are already struggling to cope with the environmental and social demands created by existing population levels, one would have to assume there would be greater problems if the population rose even faster.

Another issue may be physical health and social care. If people are living far longer, then will medical advances also make them require less in terms of healthcare and social care? If not, then are we simply going to create a massive new population of older people who require care and treatment (a demographic we are already seeing to some extent)? This concern echoes a criticism made of philanthropy by the 19th economic writer Walter Bagehot, who argued that “great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world.” I.e. the very fact that we are able to help people to live longer may result in an overall decrease in average quality of life if we are not careful.

Challenges for maintaining quality of life for people who live past traditional norms of old age may not come only from problems with their own physical and mental health. We have no way of knowing what might happen to social structures or interpersonal relationships either. For instance, how might marriage or parenthood relationships change in a context where people are living for 150 or 200 years? It is quite possible that our traditional frameworks would break down, and we would need to develop new ways of understanding social dynamics, and the resulting problems that many charities currently deal with such as marital strife, parental alienation, social isolation etc. In the short term this could create huge challenges, as we tried to move beyond our current understanding of such issues.


Apart from the impact on their own health and their relationships with those around them, the creation of a new cohort of people whose lives extend well beyond traditional norms will also have an impact on wider society. Since these people are likely to enjoy significant wealth as a result of having held capital for a long time - and the traditional intergenerational transfer of wealth that comes with death has been postponed (perhaps indefinitely) - the gap between their wealth and that of the generations that follow them is likely to increase. Hence existing problems with wealth inequality will be exacerbated.

These people will also be able to exert a disproportionate effect on public discourse and policy - as those with wealth already are – through their support for political parties, their ownership of media platforms and their philanthropy. And we have no idea how the views and priorities of a 150- or 200-year old person might differ from the rest of the society around them. Would they adapt their social mores and beliefs over time, or would they still maintain the views forged in their youth? Given available evidence about the differences in political views between the young and the old, and between those of extreme wealth and the rest of society, it does seem as though there is justifiable cause for concern here. This could be highly problematic: we have already seen the challenges that come with the “dead hand of the donor”, but what if the “live hand” of the donor became just as much of a burden in the future?


Right… up to now this has all been quite restrained, but at this point it is going to get a lot more speculative. Readers with an aversion to futurism may want to bow out at this point…

So we have given some thought to what might happen if life expectancies rise, or people are able to extend their lifespan artificially, and the impact that will have on philanthropy and civil society. But what if we conquer death a different way – by developing the ability to “upload” our minds and create realistic emulations of ourselves within a digital universe?

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to assume that such emulation will be possible at some point in the future, and that the emulations will constitute acceptably accurate digital versions of the uploaded individuals. As I mentioned at the top, if you want to read a proper exploration of what such a world might look like, I thoroughly recommend “The Age of Em”. I’m not going to go nearly as far as Robin Hanson does in that book in my brief analysis, but I might borrow a couple of ideas…

What would whole-brain emulation mean for philanthropy? Well, the first thing to say is that it is very hard to know with any certainty: we are currently not really anywhere near developing the full-blown technology (although there have been some seemingly relevant developments). However, we can infer at least a few things that point us towards potential questions that will need addressing.

One key one is what the legal status of emulations is: are they simply a gimmicky recreation of previously alive human individuals, or are they seen as legal individuals in their own right? This would have a determinate impact on philanthropy, because unlike the situation in which an existing individual extends their lifespan (where legal status is guaranteed by biological continuity); there would be a question about what happened at the point of emulation. Would that emulation be seen as a continuation of the individual, or a recreation with reduced legal status?

What would this mean for legacy giving?

If such emulations counted as legal continuations of the original person, then presumably they would retain control over any philanthropic assets. But if emulations had a different legal status, then there might be questions about where control of philanthropic assets lay after the point of death of the original individual, which might prove awkward. What, for instance, would happen if an emulation of a wealthy individual who remained involved in some capacity with their philanthropy through a structure such as a foundation demanded a change of direction that was in clear contradiction with the goals and priorities they set when they were alive, or at odds with the views of living descendants?

Imagine, for a second, how difficult things might get for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or the Ford Foundation if Rowntree and Ford were still around in emulation form and had a seat on the board. Perhaps thee views they developed on when they were alive would have ossified, and hence might be totally out of step with current social norms and realities. Or perhaps emulations would develop new views that diverge markedly from humans (as Robin Hanson suggests in his book). They might therefore come to have quite distinct views about what constitute problems worthy of philanthropic attention.

As ever, it is impossible to know for certain what the future holds. Will we all become double centenarians? Or will at least some of us live in virtual perpetuity as digital emulations? I really don’t know. However, given how important death - and the balance between giving while alive and giving as a bequest - has been in the history of philanthropy, it would seem wise for those of us interested in the long term future of giving and civil society to pay attention to the ways in which our relationship with mortality might change.