Thursday 27 October 2016

We urgently need to change approach to philanthrophy

Eilis Murray

Published 16/09/2015 | 02:30

We are a giving nation, with an estimated 89pc of people donating to charity. But despite the high level of participation, our level of giving tends to be low.
We are a giving nation, with an estimated 89pc of people donating to charity. But despite the high level of participation, our level of giving tends to be low.

Philanthropy is not a word that tends to be used in everyday vernacular in Ireland, yet it is likely that we have all benefited in some way from it, given the major impact it has had on Irish society.

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For many of our much-loved cultural institutions - theatres, botanic gardens, libraries, galleries, the RDS - philanthropy has played a major role in their development.

In relation to the needs of civil society - educational, community, health, children's rights, equality, older people, to name but a few - philanthropy has made a major contribution to advances in all of these areas of Irish society in recent times.

A vibrant philanthropic sector working in partnership and collaboration with government will maximise benefits to Irish society.

When combined with sound government policies, philanthropy can generate additional investment in the 'not-for-profit' sector. It can increase independence of projects, reducing over-reliance on government funding.

It can provide scope for innovating and testing models of intervention, embracing risk as a necessary element in achieving change, a luxury not always afforded to government.

An oft-misunderstood word, in its literal term philanthropy means 'the love of mankind', but we often treat it with deep suspicion.

While we do not have a tradition of grassroots philanthropy in Ireland, there is no reason why we cannot create our own model. Indeed, we urgently need to do so if many of the causes in the not-for-profit sector are to have continued support and further opportunities embraced.

We are a giving nation, with an estimated 89pc of people donating to charity. But despite the high level of participation, our level of giving tends to be low. In Ireland, 0.8pc of income is donated to charity, while for the UK the figure is 1.2pc and the US 2pc. With the downturn in the economy, giving levels dropped and while there is evidence of a recovery in donations, there is still a great deal more required.

Philanthropy, and most particularly strategic giving, is seriously underdeveloped in Ireland. The number of Irish donors who give in a planned fashion is significantly below EU averages.

We currently have about 35 active grant-making trusts and foundations - this should be in excess of 800 if matched to EU averages.

Two of the most significant philanthropic organisations Ireland has benefited from are limited-life foundations; one has already ceased activity, the second will close shortly, with an estimated loss of €50 million annually to the not-for-profit sector. This is at a time when demand on services is at an all-time high.

So the time is now right and the need is urgent for the transformation of philanthropy in Ireland.

Exactly what that is can be shaped by open debate and national conversations on the value of philanthropy and giving.

Government support has been vital for the active development of the sector. We need the Government to continue to play a key role in both leading and encouraging this conversation.

The value of such support has been evidenced elsewhere. In Australia, for example, in 2001 their government introduced new philanthropic structures on foot of a collaborative report aimed at improving philanthropy in Australia.

A Private Ancillary Funds (PAFs) structure was introduced, which has resulted in the establishment of 1,116 new funds and cumulative donations into these funds reaching almost $4 billion to date.

The introduction of this new measure has been cited as arguably the single most important boost for Australian philanthropy in many decades. Family involvement and particularly the engagement of children, is proving an important driver for the use of structured giving mechanisms such as PAFs in Australia.

While accepting differences in economies, the principle remains and the potential from structural support is hugely significant.

Philanthropy contributes to resolving issues and addressing needs strategically and with consideration, maximising impact. Philanthropists can be part of real change that is inclusive and far reaching, encouraging new ways of thinking, tackling difficult issues, often at lower cost.

Philanthropists acknowledge that they benefit from their giving - seeing the change emanating, being a part of the change, deepening understanding and overall by giving back.

An ongoing commitment from government for the promotion of a vibrant and effective philanthropic culture, recognising the crucial role in supporting a robust social and voluntary sector is critical.

This includes active support for the development of an infrastructure conducive to the growth of philanthropy in Ireland.

In the same vein, donors - individual and corporate - need to commit to deepening their engagement with philanthropy.

Nobody has all the answers on how best to develop philanthropy in Ireland, but there are certainly plenty of international models which could be either adopted or modified.

Now is the time to start this conversation - listen, inform, open minds and stay connected on the topic and the future for philanthropy in Ireland can be very promising.

Eilis Murray is executive director of Philanthropy Ireland

Irish Independent

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