New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and the State

A Review of Rhodri Davies’s PUBLIC GOOD BY PRIVATE MEANS (2016)

Editors’ NoteOn HistPhil earlier this year, Rhodri Davies discussed his new book, Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain (2016). Here, Andrew Purkis reviews the manuscript.   

This is a delightful series of wise reflections about key issues for philanthropy, particularly in the UK, informed by a historical perspective. It contributes more to stimulating thinking about the future of philanthropy than it does to understanding of its history for its own sake. The subtitle – How Philanthropy Shapes Britain – could be misleading, in the sense that substantial areas of how philanthropy has actually affected different facets of British life are untouched, and the coverage of others is selective. The criterion for their inclusion is their relevance to illuminating an issue about philanthropy’s future: a comprehensive history or description of current philanthropy is not what Rhodri Davies seeks to provide.

Davies works for the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), which was far sighted enough to give him time to write this book and then publish it. CAF exists to support and service charitable giving in the UK, including both large and not so large individual donors, and to influence debate and policy in favour of philanthropy. This book is in line with that mission: the target audience is not academics, though they will surely find plenty of interest, but present and potential philanthropists and those interested in the debate about its role in a modern society. It is suitably brief for such an audience, at just over 200 pages of main text. Davies wants to affirm that role, shed light on its unique strengths and limitations, and encourage a shared understanding about the way it can best complement, and not replace, the contributions of the state and the private sector. His forays into history and many attractive case studies are designed to advance such a shared understanding, disclose crucial questions about philanthropy, and illumine the implications for its future. These implications are drawn out section by section in separate panels in the text. They are then pulled together in a final statement of eight key principles about the proper role of philanthropy.

Davies writes lucidly and has a good eye for telling case studies and colourful detail. He is affectionate but critical towards the striking variety of philanthropists that appear in case study format. A subsidiary objective of the book is to act as a bridge between the general reader interested in philanthropy and the many historical sources that help expose the issues still facing philanthropists today, and that are carefully footnoted with a useful accompanying bibliography.

In the main, Davies is intelligent, fair and sophisticated in his judgements. He emphasises that philanthropy should not be expected to provide systematic services, but has specific strengths including: the ability to take risks that the public sector cannot; the ability to think and act for the long term, being free of shorter term political or economic imperatives; representing enthusiasm that cannot be too tidy, and that can be killed by excessive emphasis on measuring impact; and the ability to challenge the status quo, introducing a plurality of causes and voices into the political arena. He is particularly emphatic that “campaigning on behalf of marginalised and oppressed groups has always been part of the role of philanthropy and charities,” no doubt because he is well aware of the efforts by Government and regulators in England and Wales and beyond to shrink the space in which they can campaign.

His discussion of alternative rationales for tax breaks to support philanthropy, including a splendid vignette of Gladstone’s efforts to do away with them altogether, is particularly helpful: the correct one, in his view, is to stimulate a vibrant, pluralist civil society as a desirable aim in its own right, not to enable the state to shed its own responsibilities. Key criticisms of philanthropy are exposed unflinchingly. His discussion of how philanthropy depends on inequality, may perpetuate it but may also mitigate and address it, is a masterly summary.

I was troubled by the uncertain definition of what philanthropy is. Much of the time, it is used by Davies interchangeably with charity or voluntary action, while at other times it refers to the giving of wealthy people in particular. He also states that philanthropy is about trying to improve society by tackling the root causes of problems, rather than just addressing the symptoms (eg page 12), but this seems at odds with the parallel insistence that philanthropy is pluralist – some tackling root causes, but much also surely tackling particular distressing symptoms or not addressing “problems” at all? It also seems surprising that Davies defines philanthropy as secular and therefore virtually ignores the role of philanthropy in post-medieval societies in advancing religion. Yet in England and Wales today, one sixth of all charitable donations goes to organisations with that purpose. Apparently, Davies regards this as a different subject. The core of the book is about social welfare and the fight against poverty: vital subjects, but tending to push some other dimensions of philanthropy (not only religion but animal welfare, environmental concerns, community halls, much of the Arts, even women’s movements or gay rights) towards the margins of his attention.

Another issue stemming from the vague definition of his subject is that the democratisation of philanthropy –the development of a massive stream of income for many charities from individual supporters and donors from the 1960s onwards, and especially in the 1990s and early years of this century – is omitted. Are all those supporters and donors part of modern philanthropy, or not?

That might be a good subject for Davies’ next book. I do hope there will be one, and more after that, because Davies has commitment, critical detachment, good judgement, a great vantage point and platform at CAF, and rich talents as a writer.

As with philanthropy itself, be aware of the book’s limitations, and then enjoy its unique strengths. It is as thought-provoking a discussion of key aspects of philanthropy as you are likely to find.

-Andrew Purkis

Andrew Purkis has been Chair and Chief Executive of prominent UK charities and remains a Board Member of the international charity ActionAid. He has also been special advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Member of both the Charity Commission and the Parole Board for England and Wales. He has a Doctorate in History from Oxford and blogs in his personal capacity. He lives in London. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPurkis.

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