It’s been a while since my last blog post as our family was living in London in the fall of 2014. My husband had the opportunity to do an international rotation in London for work, and the whole family got to go along. It was quite the adventure, especially when travelling with young children! While most of my time in London was spent home schooling my daughter and seeing as many museums and historic sites we could, I also spent some time thinking about the differences in the philanthropic/charity cultures in the US and UK.
One of the exhibits that got me thinking about this was called “Philanthropy: The City Story.” This 14 panel exhibit at the Guildhall Library ran November 24, 2014- January 10, 2015. Created by the Charterhouse and the Museum of London, funded by the City Bridge Trust, the exhibit “traces 800 years of philanthropic giving and reveals how generosity laid the foundations of London and established sophisticated ideas around private wealth and public good.”
The exhibit was very specific to “The City” of London which is really only one square mile. City Bridge Trust originated the funds needed to build and maintain London Bridge starting in the 1200’s. Rents and tolls were paid to “God and the bridge.” As funds grew other bridges were built–the Tower Bridge, Blackfriars. In 1995, with good management of the funds, grants could be allocated to other causes. As London’s largest grant-giving trust, it now gives away over £16 million per year. By comparison the New York Community Trust gave just over $60M in 2014. The reasons why there is a such a big gap in these yearly grantmaking totals are complex, and it’s not that the UK lags the US in charitable giving per se. It’s that the cultures and societal underpinnings are dramatically different as I’ll explore here.
While this exhibit was narrowly focused, it made me curious about the broader differences between philanthropic cultures in the US vs. UK. In my research I came across a very thorough analysis by Karen Wright with the Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics. Karen’s paper is entitled, “Generosity vs. Altruism: Philanthropy and Charity in the US and UK.” (Please see this link for the full paper as well as the many additional sources cited.) While this subject is incredibly complex and nuanced as Ms. Wright demonstrates, below are a few key points that resonated with me as an American who has worked in the nonprofit sector throughout my career.
While some people may think that the differences in philanthropy are all about the tax treatment, that is far from the whole story. Wright points out that in both cases “the net effect is that a donor will be able to make a gift larger that she or he might otherwise afford because of the tax treatment.” More specically, “In the US the donor gives the full amount and then later is able to deduct it from tax owed for the year. In the UK the donor can make a lesser donation knowing that after filling in forms provided by the recipient organization the government with ‘match’ the donation with the amount of tax which would have been paid to Internal Revenue on the gift.” Now that taxes have been briefly considered, it’s time to get down to more interesting cultural differences.
Here are the 4 primary areas of Ms. Wright’s paper that I found the most fascinating, starting with terminology.
1. Widely different connotations of the terms “philanthropy” and “charity” in the US and UK
Ms. Wright points out that while “philanthropy” in the United States is a positive term, “In the UK, however, philanthropy has not been so popular. While it has enjoyed a very recent renewal of interest, spurred by modern visions of such things as e-philanthropy and social ‘investment,’ for many in Britain it still carries disparaging connotations of Victorian ‘do-gooderism’ and is often seen as elitist, patronizing, morally judgmental, and ineffective, as well as old fashioned and out of date. It is perceived as an idea whose time came, was proved unworkable, and went – to be replaced by a universal, fair, and more efficient welfare state. . . In the UK ‘charity’ and ‘charitable giving’ are the preferred terms; though still under some of the same cloud (and generally referring to smaller gifts,) they are seen as more modern, egalitarian and respectful.”
She goes on to elaborate, “A further irony of this paradox is that in many ways the negative connotations applied to the concept of philanthropy in the UK are very similar to the meanings that the term charity carries in the US. The terms are used almost as mirror opposites in the two countries. Moreover, philanthropy is viewed in Britain as a somewhat dubious attitude or stance; charitable giving on the other hand is a comparatively positive act. In the United States the situation is reversed. Philanthropy is an act, and an increasingly commanding one, while charity is dismissed as a patronizing and somewhat out of date attitude.”
So next time you are speaking with a British colleague, now you’ll know what they really mean when either of these words is used!
2. The role of government in addressing social concerns
Wright goes on to say, “In the United States both the left and the right have greatest faith in non-governmental solutions, and private giving is a universally positive value, supporting robust community efforts to create and sustain a desirable quality of life for its members. In the UK private giving, and particularly philanthropy, is perceived as an inefficient and piecemeal strategy that has been obsolete for decades. An overwhelming majority of 88% of UK residents felt that ‘the government ought to help more and not rely on charity to raise needed money.'”
This attitude towards what the goverment is and is not meant to address in terms of social welfare cannot be understated.
3. Varying attitudes towards money and wealth
Any fan of Downton Abbey will be well aware of varying perceptions of wealth and money as demonstrated in the primary characters, Cora (the daughter of a wealthy “new money” American) who married Robert, the Earl of Grantham, a landed aristocrat.
Wright characterizes the different attitudes about wealth saying, “Put simply, in the United States money is seen as a good thing. Wealth is considered a nearly universal measure of achievement and success. People who have become rich are viewed with respect; those who have inherited wealth are viewed by some with suspicion. The dominant indicator of class status in America, wealth is relatively explicitly discussed and visibly displayed. . . Philanthropy in particular has been a way to demonstrate both social leadership and significant personal wealth, and as such has often been used as a vehicle for entrance into elite circles.”
Wright adds, “Money is not clearly such a good thing in the UK. Financial success is viewed by some with admiration, by others with suspicion, who see it as unseemly, and very likely a result of the exploitation of others. Inherited wealth for a few is considered a given; it is accepted as long as it is not accompanied by ‘excessive’ or obvious consumption of material goods. It is in many ways a family trust, to be preserved whole (or added to) for future generations, and not to be squandered by self-indulgent consumption – or for that matter given away through large-scale philanthropy.”
4. Generosity (US) vs. Altruism (UK)
I’m going to quote extensively in this final section because the content is just that good and needs to be excerpted in context to get at the layers of meaning. Ms. Wright sums up her main arguments by making the distinction between Generosity in the United States and Altruism in the United Kingdom. “Generosity is an apt characterization of the giving ethos in the United States. As used by Julian Wolpert in his extensive studies of giving in 83 US cities (Wolpert, 1993), it implies bounteousness but does not require altruism. US giving is heavily interlaced with self -interest, either directly through tax benefits, benefits from the supported charity, or social status; or indirectly through the achievement of social goals which one might desire, such as better child care, civil rights, better parks etc. Moreover these self-interested motivations are not only acceptable, but are socially approved. Givers want to feel, in the words of Michael McPherson, ‘both good and smart’ and organizations bend over backwards with promotional gifts, status rewards, etc. to help them feel that way. Giving is seen as an expression of personal and social identity and goals.”
She adds, “In the US giving and volunteering are integral components to civic involvement; indeed they may be considered far loftier than actual political involvement. Giving modes are predominately purposeful and planned, and yield relatively higher average gifts. Gifts are largely directed towards theoretically ‘particular’ causes, in which the giver may directly participate, such as a church or performing arts group, or ones where they may have received some direct benefit in the past, such as a college or university. In the US moral motivation rests on individual initiative and reciprocity; giving triggers are predominantly emotional.”
Wright argues that in the UK, “Altruism connotes pure selflessness, and for the most part the British expect that giving should be altruistic, even self-sacrificing. They have traditionally rejected mixed motives for giving, and are quite suspicious – particularly of philanthropic giving – because it is so rarely able to live up to popular expectations of purely altruistic motives. However there is a subtle paradox here – people express increasing acceptance that their own giving may involve both altruistic and self-interested motives, but they must be seen as independent in order to preserve the ‘genuineness’ of their charitable intention. Giving has been seen largely as private decision, peripheral to both social identity and civic responsibility, though new government initiatives aim to bring them closer together. ‘Spare change’ modes dominate giving, yielding small gifts, and making giving vulnerable to other demands on pocket change. Universal causes such as Oxfam and Save the Children, in which there is no direct or indirect benefit to the giver, receive the bulk of UK donations, and far fewer gifts go to organizations from which the donor has had a direct association, such as a church or university.”
Wow, there is a lot packed into this perceptive analysis by Ms. Wright. What is most striking to me is how many aspects of philanthropic or charitable giving are polar opposites in the UK and US. Having been a major gift fundraiser in university and community foundation settings, I find it noteworthy that the “pocket change” method is so dominant in the UK. This would be absurd to me if not for the nuanced explanation as laid out by Ms. Wright.
For my fundraising colleagues, if you ever interview with a UK-based charity please read Ms. Wright’s paper in its entirety before your interview! The same advice goes for any of my clients or nonprofits thinking they can easily expand their fundraising operations into the UK. We may speak the same language, but remember the same words don’t always mean the same thing on each side of the pond.