Hugh Cunningham, University of Kent
VAHS 2010 Conference Keynote Address
From benevolence to philanthropy, 1700-1900
Walking down Princes Street in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, my eyes diverted from the ripping up of the street that is part of the great tram scandal, I noticed a statue to Thomas Guthrie. I’d encountered Guthrie in print before. He was one of the key advocates of ragged schools in the mid-nineteenth century, and ran one in the Grassmarket, now full of wine bars and boutiques, but in my Edinburgh childhood still something of a no-go area. Guthrie, a Presbyterian minister, watching his ragged children running around and playing, reflected that ‘God made childhood to be happy’, a sentiment difficult to imagine coming from his Presbyterian forebears. For that alone I reckon he deserved a statue. It was difficult on a murky Edinburgh day to read the description of his good deeds on the statue’s plinth, but ‘Thomas Guthrie, 1803-1873, Preacher-Philanthropist’ stood out clearly.
We don’t have ‘preacher-philanthropists’ any more. I’ve been making three programmes for BBC Radio 4 under the title ‘How New is the New Philanthropy?’ The inscription to Guthrie has been just one prompt to thinking about how philanthropy – and other words and phrases we might associate with it – has undergone a constant process of reinvention. My producer, Beaty Rubens, and I started the programmes at a Cumberland Lodge conference on ‘The Future of the Third Sector’. ‘Philanthropy’ was hardly on the agenda – and it seemed that the ‘Third Sector’, now no longer the political flavour of the month, was about to drop off it, to be replaced by ‘civil society’, or perhaps something else. The ‘voluntary sector’ and its spokespeople were there in force, the long-established NCVO and the relative newcomer ACEVO, but I had the sense that if they were starting from scratch they would do so under new names. We lack a language that we’re comfortable with for describing that whole sphere of public activity that cannot come under the label of either state or market.
The cuts have arguably clarified something, well-known in the sector, but not outside it: the ‘voluntary sector’ is to a considerable extent financed by the taxpayer – and has little to do with ‘volunteers’. And in a world where ‘contracts’ have replaced ‘grants’, the market, often ignored in twentieth-century discussions on the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector, is now the rising star, charities lacking the capital to bid successfully. But at the same time the Coalition government is in many ways trying to pretend this is not the case, striving to return us to an (imagined?) world where we all ‘volunteer’ and the voluntary sector finances itself.
The May 2011 Giving White Paper, perhaps inadvertently, tells us where we are: we are all being encouraged to ‘give’. Time, perhaps ‘slivers of time’, is valuable, but more so is money. And philanthropy is at the top of the giving tree, and reserved for the rich. In language borrowed directly from the world of marketing, in the section of the White Paper on philanthropy, ‘mass affluent and high net-worth individuals’ are going to be ‘channelled’ towards ‘new portals’ for advice ‘on a range of donor models’. At a time when Citizens Advice Bureaus are struggling as budgets are cut, taxpayers’ money is going to be used to offer a different kind of advice, advice to the rich on how to give.
What, I asked myself, would Thomas Guthrie think about this? Or Elizabeth Macadam who wrote in the 1930s about The New Philanthropy, one that worked in harmony with the state to produce better social services. How, in brief, has philanthropy come to be thought of almost entirely as something which the rich do? And what are the implications?
There are no easy answers to that, but the new philanthropists themselves are aware of a pedigree. If you ask them about influential role models, they cluster around Andrew Carnegie. His Gospel of Wealth (1889), according to Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World and Why We Should Let Them (2008), is ‘practically holy scripture’. One can only hope that they haven’t read it, for it is, to put it politely, a product very much of its age, or, in other words, racist, and committed to the defence of ‘Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition’.
The bit of Carnegie the new philanthropists like, and let’s hope the only bit they know, is his insistence that spending your money well on good causes, and spending it before you die, constitutes virtue. Difficult to argue with that. And difficult, too, not to be warmed by the pleasure they get from involvement in giving, similar it seemed to me to ‘the warm, rapturous sensations’ that Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones experienced after an act of giving back in the eighteenth century.
I guess, too, that Thomas Guthrie felt the same way, though he was too Presbyterian to be able to acknowledge it, something I think he shared with other nineteenth-century philanthropists. But for Guthrie, and for many others in the nineteenth century, philanthropy was not about giving money. It was about something which the VAHS acknowledges in its title – ‘action’. What about a White Paper on Action?
‘How New is the New Philanthropy?’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Monday 12, 18 and 26 December 2011.