Saturday 22 October 2016

Philanthropy isn't just for US tycoons - it can do good here, too

Jillian Godsil

Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30

John D Rockerfeller once said we should think of giving not only as a duty, but that it is a privilege to be in a position to make a difference to people’s lives (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John D Rockerfeller once said we should think of giving not only as a duty, but that it is a privilege to be in a position to make a difference to people’s lives (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife made headlines last year when they announced they will transfer 99pc of their shares in Facebook to a charitable trust.

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While they received almost universal applause for their generosity, there were some dissenting voices. The main criticism came from those who questioned why individuals should be able to shape the future - a role better reserved for governments or public bodies.

These criticisms make for interesting reading, especially in Ireland. A recent report by the Community Foundation for Ireland on how entrepreneurs view philanthropy in Ireland made the following observation: "The term philanthropy also generates some unease in an Irish context, with some respondents expressing their discomfort with the term 'philanthropy' as appearing elitist and not aligning well with Irish culture."

Last month Donald Trump waded involuntarily into the debate after 'The Washington Post' revealed he donates very little of his own money to charity.

Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance at Trinity College Dublin, doesn't see a conflict between the role of philanthropy and that of other bodies capable of investing funds, such as governments or State bodies: "Philanthropists pay their tax like everyone else - it just so happens they have more left over to play with. We are only seeing an Irish version of the original American trend emerging: individuals who amassed fortunes deciding to give back to society rather than the next generation," he says. "Here it is different and the tax breaks not as attractive for individuals, but concerned individuals have a role, same as government does and institutions."

Seven out of eight Irish entrepreneurs make donations. This is important, as overseas giants including The Atlantic Philanthropies and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust are winding down their work here, creating a vacuum for local business or individuals to fill.

Other headwinds facing the development of philanthropy here have included the recession as well as the undermining of trust arising from recent disclosures about charity sector salaries.

Only 4pc of Irish donors claim tax relief, compared with 15pc in the UK. One effect of streamlining tax reliefs might be to encourage Irish donors to think strategically.

Eilish Murray is executive director of Philanthropy Ireland, whose membership includes individuals and organisations interested in the long-term strategy of planned giving.

"We are not grant-makers," says Murray. "Our role is to advocate and promote good policy practice. We want to make a difference and that can best be achieved through strategic giving rather than reaction giving. However, while we welcome tax breaks... research shows it is not a prime impetus when it comes to philanthropy. The heart strings will do more than tax reform."

Maurice Healy of The Healy Foundation, who is also chairman of Philanthropy Ireland, is an advocate for planned strategic giving, especially in a local context. An entrepreneur in the pharma and food sectors, he has, through the Healy Foundation, dedicated 20pc of his business's net profits to charitable causes. He has two guiding principles.

"Firstly, it not just the Healy family but the employees who decide on what charities to support. We gather consensus before we do anything - ownership is throughout the enterprise, not just from the top down.

"Secondly, we favour local projects. In particular we have looked at primary schools in the same area as our local facilities. All too often primary school principals spend more time trying to find funding than educating. We see it as our role to help the business of the school so the principal can further the education of the children."

Former chairman of Coutts Bank, Ulster Bank and, more recently, Irish Life and Permanent, David Went's first brush with philanthropy was while he was with Ulster Bank, when he was approached to provide a bursary for students in the Trinity Access Programme. Went agreed and canvassed other individuals to do the same. Soon he was invited onto the Trinity Foundation Board.

"Joining the board changed my focus from sponsoring individuals to looking at the university structure as a whole," he says. "Universities are like the orphans of education. Primary schools have school-gate advocates, second level has similar but third level is rarely owned by any partisan group."

John D Rockerfeller once said we should think of giving not only as a duty, but that it is a privilege to be in a position to make a difference to people's lives. It's not the size of the donation but the fact that someone gives at all. Perhaps someone should tell that to Mr Trump.

Irish Independent

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