Philanthropy and the State / Philanthropy in the News

The UK Civil Society Strategy and The History of State vs Philanthropic Welfare Provision

Editors’ Note: Against the backdrop of the UK government’s new Civil Society StrategyRhodri Davies provides broader historical context to UK debates on civil society, the state, and welfare needs. 

The UK government recently launched its major new Civil Society Strategy, billed as the first attempt in 15 years to outline a holistic vision for the relationship between civil society and the state in this country.

The document attempts to cover a wealth of topics in its 123 pages, from experiments in participatory democracy to ways of developing digital skills. However, one can determine clear themes within the strategy: one of the most prominent of which is the need to rebalance the relationship between state and civil society when it comes to the provision of welfare.

The government attempts to set this in historical context, noting that: “many of our public services began life independent of government…  Over time, government stepped in to support and extend the work done by communities and private philanthropy. This helped ensure high standards and universal access, and created a system – the welfare state – which people could trust.”

This echoes the words of the Nathan Committee Report of 1952- the output of the first major inquiry into the role of philanthropy and the voluntary sector following the establishment of the welfare state which claimed that “historically, state action is voluntary action crystallized and made universal.” However, that report was also careful to point out that we should not fall into the trap of assuming that this is a zero-sum game, and that “at no time can we discern any antithesis between public and private welfare services, or the making of any fundamental distinction between their aims and functions.”

In reality, as argued by historian Geoffrey Finlayson in Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain (1994), there has been, for the last 400 years or so, a “mixed economy of welfare [in which] voluntary impinged on statutory, statutory on voluntary; and this was an enduring process.” Of course, over time the balance of responsibility within this mixed economy has shifted markedly as we have seen a “different distribution of emphasis and importance between voluntarism and the state in the delivery of social welfare.”

A key point in this relationship is the creation of the Welfare State after the Second World War, which can be seen as the juncture where expectations of responsibility for meeting welfare needs shifted decisively. As such, it is a useful fixed point from which to look both backwards and forwards.

At the start of the 17th century, the British government first notably took an interest in the question of philanthropic welfare provision. A desire to minimise the need to enact Poor Law legislation by ensuring that charity continued to meet the welfare needs of the populace, led the government to introduce the Statute of Charitable Uses (1601). This legislation (or more accurately, its narrative preamble) outlined the first official government view of what constituted “acceptable” purposes for charitable trusts and has subsequently shaped charitable law in the UK and elsewhere around the world.

Over time, the nature and scale of social problems changed as the nation became industrialised and urbanised, and it became apparent that the State had to step into many areas. But as David Owen, one of the most prominent historians of English philanthropy, notes: The welfare role of government remained “largely supplementary, to fill such urgent gaps as might be left by the network of private agencies and to carry out its traditional obligation of relieving the genuinely destitute.”

Eventually, however, efforts to maintain a vision of philanthropic provision of welfare with minimal state involvement proved futile. As Benjamin Kirkman Gray wrote in a fairly damning assessment in 1908: “Private individuals were confident of their power to discharge a public function, and the government was willing to have it so. It was left to experience to determine that the work was ill done and by no means equal to the need.”

The early years of the 20th century then saw, as Finlayson notes, “the emergence of issues and ideas which, while presenting opportunities for a continuing role for voluntary social endeavour of various kinds, also presented a challenge to that endeavour. It saw the development of a more democratic and collectivist state which sought to create what has been called ‘a more organic relation’ between the individual and society and to establish a citizenship of entitlement.”

By 1948, with the significant additional factor of the forced collectivism of WWII still looming large in the nation’s consciousness, a more robust welfare state came to the fore. Some believed that this was also the point at which the death-knell for philanthropy in the UK should be sounded, as universal state provision replaced the “patch-quilt of local paternalisms” derided by politicians like Aneurin Bevan. As Maria Brenton notes in her history of the voluntary sector in British social services, “A common expectation in those years at the end of the war was that the voluntary sector would just wither away.”

However, such gloomy views were not universal. Among those continuing to extol the virtues of philanthropy was the notable figure of economist and social reformer William Beveridge, who authored an entire volume outlining his vision for the role of voluntary action within the very welfare state which he had played such a large part in creating. In his view, “Voluntary Action is needed to do things which the State should not do… It is needed to do things which the State is most unlikely to do. It is needed to pioneer ahead of the State and make experiments. It is needed to get services rendered which cannot be got by paying for them.”

There were also many who pointed out that the legislation which formed the basis for the welfare state did not make the crowding out of philanthropy inevitable. The aforementioned Nathan Committee noted in 1952, for instance, that there was “on local bodies an obligation not to ‘provide’ but to ‘secure the provision of’ a service. It is clear that… Parliament, so far from wishing to exclude voluntary effort, expected and intended that there should be a close partnership between the charitable organisations and the public authorities.”

The idea that state provision of welfare has crowded out voluntary provision in the UK since 1948, and that this needs rebalancing, was at the heart of the Big Society agenda. Future Prime Minister David Cameron argued in 2009 that “Big government… undermines personal and social responsibility… and thus perpetuates poverty instead of solving it.” It also – although less overtly– forms the basis for the Civil Society Strategy’s focus on ‘collaborative’ approaches to public services. Yet this narrative can obscure a far more complex picture – in which voluntary, state and private provision has existed within a mixed economy of welfare for many hundreds of years. And at no point has the caricature of “more state means less philanthropy” ever been true.

Perhaps the Nathan Committee once again put it most succinctly when it noted that “so far from voluntary action being dried up by the extension of the social services, greater and greater demands are being made on it. We believe, indeed, that the democratic state, as we know it, could hardly function effectively or teach the exercise of democracy to its members without such channels for, and demands upon, voluntary service.”

Rhodri Davies is Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), and also leads Giving Thought – CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. He is the author of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain, which traces the history of philanthropy in Britain and what it tells us about the role of modern philanthropy. Beyond that, he has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics – from social investment to the charitable applications of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain – 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 over a decade specialising in the policy aspects of philanthropy and charitable giving.


Beveridge, W. (1948) Voluntary Action: A Report on Methods of Social Advance. London: George, Allen & Unwin.

Brenton, M. (1985) The Voluntary Sector in British Social Services. London: Longman.

Cameron, D (2009) Hugo Young Memorial Lecture:

Finlayson, G. (1994) Citizen, State and Social Welfare in Britain, 1830-1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Great Britain, Charitable Trusts Committee (Nathan Committee) (1952) Report of the Committee on the Law and Practice relating to Charitable Trusts. London: The Stationery Office (Cm. 8710).

Kirkman Gray, B. (1908) Philanthropy and the State; or, Social Politics. London: P.S. King & Son. Reproduced by the Internet Archive.

Owen, D. (1964) English Philanthropy, 1660-1960, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Prochaska, F. (1988) The Voluntary Impulse: Philanthropy in Modern Britain. London: Faber & Faber.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s