16 June 2022

The British public are brimming with ideas – it’s time Whitehall listened to them

By Nicole Sykes

As the denizens of SW1A rehash old arguments about tax and spend, resurrect stale proposals from years gone by, and wrangle once again with Europe, Britain’s business leaders, communities and charities are brimming with ideas to solve the country’s challenges. And raising or spending their own money to do so. 

Take Made-in-Stoke, an initiative bringing together local universities, football clubs, charities, philanthropists and the council to harness the ‘Stokie diaspora’ to invest in the place that made them successful. Or SAINT in east London, which started out fundraising to fix a leaky church roof and has gone on to establish multiple social enterprises on church grounds which devote their profits to addiction and homelessness programmes. Or the Paul Cornes Fund, which has recently given 61 young people in Dorset educational bursaries and paid to heat the homes of 380 local people last year, illustrating how a fund dedicated to a single person’s memory can go on to benefit thousands, even after they have passed.

Almost every community in the country has groups of residents fundraising to meet a need, and individuals of differing means willing to donate.

In total, these donations add up to £20 billion a year given to UK charities alone. That’s the equivalent of the pre-pandemic revenue of Marks & Spencer, Next and every Premier League football club combined. And there’s enormous potential to raise even more. If the British population gave a similar share of their wealth to charities as the New Zealand or Canadian public, it would generate an additional £5bn each year.

Philanthropists and charities have plenty of ideas about how to grasp that £5bn prize. There are exciting initiatives springing up, such as Greater Share, a new philanthropic model using private equity to raise funds for education charities – making philanthropy more attractive to potential donors. The first UK Impact 100 group has started up, with organisers recruiting 100 women to donate £1,000 annually – enabling transformative £100,000 awards to go to charities, and encouraging women to get into philanthropy for the first time.

But, inevitably, many of the big levers for change lie in the Government’s hands. Given the pressures of the pandemic, where the income of one in four charities fell by 40% or more, government action is needed.

Fortunately, there are also plenty of ideas about how government can help too. It could improve regulation to ensure financial advisers help wealthy clients to better understand their options for philanthropy. Existing tax incentives could also work harder and would benefit from being modernised. Government could be making better use of match-funding, which can multiply both Treasury and philanthropic investment. And it could champion philanthropy more and improve its measurement of giving.

However, we need people in government dedicated to philanthropy policy to achieve any of that. While we have multiple departments tasked with increasing business investment in some form or other, there is currently only a third of one civil servant’s time spent on philanthropy policy. When a great idea to improve philanthropy does crop up, there is simply no one in government to hear about it.

The US government sees the advantages of dedicating sufficient resources to unlocking philanthropy. President Biden is on a mission for each federal department to have a dedicated team of ‘philanthropy liaisons’. There are now 40 of these individuals working across departments from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs, making sure all staff are trained to identify opportunities for leveraging philanthropic investment. Across the US, a growing number of cities and states also have Offices of Strategic Partnership dedicated to doing the same. The one based in the Michigan Governor’s Office has brokered $150m of investment for the state, while a newer office in LA Country has raised $23.5m for health and child welfare since July 2021.

The UK would benefit from something similar. The Cabinet Office should be driving awareness of philanthropy across Whitehall, so more civil servants look to seize the opportunities of well-run match funding schemes. And a senior civil servant or ‘Philanthropy Champion’ should be appointed to work with charities and philanthropists to unlock greater giving across the UK. 

These are the first two steps the Government needs to take to grasp that £5bn philanthropic prize, and enable more people to turn ideas for improving their communities into reality.

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​Nicole Sykes is Policy and Communications Director at Pro Bono Economics.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.