Lessons for charities when it comes to philanthropy

There was a refreshing, and in some ways quite surprising, degree of honestly among the philanthropists taking part in a panel discussion to launch the Family Foundations Giving Trends 2011 report this week.

Perhaps the most notable presence on the panel was Trevor Pears, a co-founder of the Pears Foundation, which has been playing a significant role in the UK’s philanthropy debate recently.

Pears said this was the first time he had appeared on such a panel to talk about his giving – as quite a private person, he said, he grappled with the decision of whether to speak out, but eventually decided it was important to.

“Most important is showing by example,” he said. “We need to be able to celebrate giving in this country and talk about these things.”

Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care, spoke very frankly about his philanthropy through the Emily Hughes-Hallett Fund, which was set up in memory of his daughter, who died in infancy.

“We feel passionately that giving should be fun,” he said. “You bonk that on the head at your peril. You’ve got to allow yourself humanity in your giving and not make it too much like an investment portfolio.”

He was also quite blunt about the tax benefits of his philanthropy – i.e. having to pay less of it, which was something a member of the audience tried to tackle him on. But neither he, nor Sir Tom Hunter, founder of the Hunter Foundation, who also appeared on the panel, were having any of it. They reacted quite strongly, almost angrily, at the suggestion that they might feel guilty for paying less tax.

It was also made clear that there is a careful thought process behind many of these gifts. These are successful business people, and it’s doubtful that a random, over-emotional approach is going to feature too often. As Nigel Doughty, a trustee of the Doughty Family Foundation and the Doughty Hanson Charitable Foundation, put it: “I think to nobly give is wonderful…but to do it with skill multiplies that effect.”

So, lessons for charities? It seems important to make it as fun as possible for a philanthropist to become involved with your cause, but bear in mind the natural business acumen of a lot of these people, and make a strong case for the effect that their gift could have.

Finally, a quick reminder of the tax benefits probably wouldn’t hurt.

I hope the fact that people such as Trevor Pears are starting to appear on panels like this is an indication that more philanthropists will talk openly and frankly about their giving over the coming years. It seems to be a great way to encourage others, no matter how wealthy they may be, to get involved in giving, and  hopefully to normalise it more in this country  – something the sector certainly needs right now.