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Lessons from history for current issues facing charities

Rhodri Davies has just published his book 'Public Good by Private Means'. He has impressive experience of the sector and currently works at the Charities Aid Foundation, where he leads the think tank focus on issues affecting philanthropy and the charitable sector.

‘Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain’

My new book looks at the history of philanthropy in Britain and what it can tell us about philanthropy’s role in modern society. My aim in doing this was to provide a new perspective on some of the debates about the purpose of charitable giving and the work of charities, but I hadn’t envisaged quite how timely many of the themes in the book would be.

Campaigning for social change

A key theme to emerge in the book is the importance and long history of campaigning by philanthropically-funded organisations. For hundreds of years, charities and their donors have sought not only to address the symptoms of social problems through providing direct services, but also to try and address their underlying causes by campaigning for social change. Without this campaigning work, we might never have seen the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage for women or the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Why attempts by the government to restrict the freedom of charities are worrying for the sector?

This is why attempts by the government here in the UK ─ and by other governments around the world ─ to restrict the freedom of charities to campaign are both frustrating and deeply worrying. They are frustrating because they are often based on a narrative that campaigning is somehow a “departure” from the “proper role” of charities in ministering to those in need; yet historical evidence shows that this couldn’t be further from the truth. And they are worrying because it is clear that the campaigning role of charities is a vital part of a well-functioning democracy; hence any attempt to undermine that role for political reasons will cause long-term damage.

What about fundraising practices?

The book also offers useful insights into the current furore over fundraising. There is often a suggestion that questionable practices in fundraising are an entirely new phenomenon. But once again, this is not true: charities have always struggled with the challenge of balancing the short-term need to raise funds against the longer-term need to maintain the trust of supporters and the public. Sometimes they have got this balance wrong: there are many examples from Victorian times, for example, of people complaining about aggressive fundraising techniques and the use of paid third-party fundraisers, just as we have seen today.

What can we learn from history?

The lesson for charities is that public trust is a precious commodity: one that it is easy to lose and hard to win back. What history also shows is that when the voluntary sector is seen as not being able to self-regulate and the government is forced to step in, it almost always does so in a way that is far more restrictive than charities themselves would like. Hence it is vital to deal with issues effectively before that point is reached.

Hopefully anyone who reads this book will come to agree that the history of philanthropy is much more than the stories of long-dead donors and their deeds: it is a valuable source of insight into many of the key issues facing the charitable sector today.

About Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies works at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), where he leads Giving Thought – CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and the charitable sector. He has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics – from the history of philanthropy to the charitable applications of cutting-edge technologies– and is much in demand as an adviser to governments, businesses, charities and philanthropists. Rhodri graduated from the University of Oxford with a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy and embarked upon an academic career before migrating into public policy work, where he has spent nearly a decade specialising in the policy aspects of philanthropy and charitable giving.