Charity - a funny old business

By Alex Brummer, January 6, 2011

When it comes to giving, British companies are somewhat put to shame by the United States, where several of the country's heavyweights are committing a significant proportion of their wealth to charities.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have pioneered a whole new approach to philanthropy.

Both men have made a 'Giving Pledge' under which their estates - valued at more than $150bn between them - will go to charities. And rather than give to buildings, the donors have decided that the priority is medical research aimed at ending endemic illnesses in third-world countries. They have helped bring together some of the brightest minds in bio-technology research. Among those signing the Gates-Buffett pledge is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He has given $100m (£65m) to schools in rundown Newark, New Jersey. Serial entrepreneur and private equity investor Carl Icahn has also committed to the pledge.

Back in the UK, the situation is
a little more mixed. At last year's 250th gala dinner for the Board of Deputies, the sponsoring family insisted that they would only provide the money if they were to remain anonymous. This would not be anything unusual to those familiar with the Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides, who noted that the highest form of giving is that done when the donor is unidentified.

I was reminded of this when attending another recent charitable function, this time a breakfast in
London, where the guest speaker -
a senior executive at prominent and money spinning investment house - insisted on telling the audience every jot and tittle of his giving and that of his organisation.

Among the reasons the UK’s rich are so comparatively uncharitable is a fundamental belief in the land

It was as though he thought that by boasting of his good works for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, any reputational damage done by his organisation would be forgotten.

Yet unlike the US, Britain is far from being in the big league of charitable givers. The Cass Business School at London's City University estimates that Britain's most wealthy families have assets valued at £33.5bn. But post-recession donations have stalled and just £1.4bn was given away.

Among the reasons that the UK's rich are so comparatively uncharitable is a fundamental belief in the land. The Downton Abbey syndrome, where the rich strive to keep the great landed estates together, makes us a stingier society.

There are of course Jewish causes such as UJIA, Jewish Care and Norwood, where a number of wealthy British individuals do punch well above their weight. But there is a tendency in the Jewish community - and beyond - to partake in what I call 'monumental' giving. Instead of being satisfied by money being distributed via a foundation or trust to dozens of different causes, the donors want to see their names plastered all over the buildings or spaces: parks, museums, theatres or the likes.

Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in Jerusalem where there is scarcely a public building where benefactors are not celebrated. It is to the credit of the Rothschilds that the Knesset and the Supreme Court are not named in their honour.

On occasions, giving by businessmen can go notoriously wrong. The 1980s insider Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky, who spent three and a half years in prison, was a large donor to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - he contributed $20m to
a library in his name. After his conviction, the Seminary returned what it regarded as tainted cash and his name was removed from the building.

Although most charitable giving in the UK pales into insignificance in comparison with what is being done across the pond, some British businesses are taking steps to improve the situation.

Several of the industry's most high-profile names have stated publicly that they intend to leave their wealth in charitable trusts. These include Lord (David) Sainsbury, who has embraced scientific causes, Heron International's Gerald Ronson, who is targeting education, and the Scottish tycoon Tom Hunter.

There is another approach companies are taking. Pioneered by fund manager Richard Bernstein of Crystal Amber, it is called 'share gifting'. This encourages quoted companies to offer a small proportion of their capital each year as a 'scrip' or free issue to charities. In an era when company directors are constantly issuing 'bonus' shares to each other, such gifting is comparatively painless.

It also has the advantage of being relatively anonymous rather than a giant advertisement for generosity.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:01am, January 6 2011