Promoting giving while living

Resource type: News

Irish Times |

Tax incentives and banking practices need to be developed to encourage Ireland’s newly wealthy to indulge in philanthropy, writes Colin McCrea.

The Irish people have always shown themselves generous in giving to charity – a characteristic that long predates the Celtic Tiger. As such one might have expected that Ireland’s new wealthy would rapidly establish themselves in the forefront of philanthropic giving. But with some notable and highly honourable exceptions, this has so far not proved to be the case.

Therein lies a paradox that can be illuminated by addressing three questions.

The first is: how can we encourage this new generation of Irish wealthy to devote a significant amount of their resources to philanthropy?

Lecturing is out of the question, but enticement certainly is on the table. As Chuck Feeney, the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, put it recently: “Giving while living has to be better than giving while dead. I’ve never met anyone who said they didn’t enjoy the result of what they gave their money for.”

That is one reason why we welcome the establishment of the Ray Murphy Memorial Lectures on philanthropy at University College Cork, and the establishment of Philanthropy Ireland. Initiatives such as these help to bring the issue of philanthropy out of the shadows and into the full glare of daylight, giving us all an opportunity to highlight the manifold benefits of philanthropy, to giver and receiver alike. And they also can serve to create, in the gentlest possible way, a public expectation that the richest among us should be as generous in their giving as the general run of the population.

There is also a role for taxation incentives in creating this enticement. At present our taxation system is structured so as to encourage our wealthy citizens to invest in certain areas, most notably in property, while it actively discourages them from investing in philanthropic giving on the same scale. At the very least, we need to level the playing field here, so that the State remains neutral in the decisionmaking of the wealthy as to how they dispose of their resources. At the very least, we need as a nation to send out the message that the State attaches importance to investment in philanthropic giving.

The second question is: assuming that they can be encouraged to give, how can they be persuaded to do their giving not in an ad-hoc fashion but in a carefully structured way?

Neither the State nor philanthropists, acting on their own, can do it all. But acting together in partnership, they can change the world. That is a big claim, but it is no less than the truth.

And stating it highlights the difference between charity and philanthropy: philanthropy is not simply charity writ large. While charity seeks to relieve the symptom that immediately presents itself, philanthropy seeks to remove the cause that gave rise to the symptom in the first place. Philanthropy is therefore essentially strategic by nature.

This draws attention to a problem that some wealthy people see in philanthropy. Philanthropy is much more than simply giving money to people who ask for it. Only a few really extraordinary people, like Bill Gates and Chuck Feeney, will choose to give up their business interests and devote their lives to giving. For the rest, a structure such as a foundation is often the best solution: a foundation that has a professional staff devoted to carrying out the donor’s wishes in a businesslike and efficient way.

But if we want to nurture philanthropy in Ireland I think we must also recognise that many of our new wealthy are not yet ready to set up foundations of their own.

There is surely a need to develop mechanisms that offer the benefits of a foundation without actually involving the donor in the responsibility of setting up that kind of organisation himself. It is a business opportunity for those banks which seek to specialise in the management of the wealth of individuals of high net worth.

Another piece of necessary infrastructure is the development of skills banks in fundraising and in the administration of philanthropic funds. To develop philanthropy properly in Ireland we need skilled askers almost as much as we need givers, as well as people to manage the money.

The third, by no means obvious, question is: assuming that Ireland’s new wealthy can be encouraged not alone to give generously but to do so in a structured way, how can they be persuaded to take the further step of publicising their generosity rather than doing good by stealth?

This may sound odd, coming from The Atlantic Philanthropies, an organisation that until quite recently was obsessive about the importance we attached to anonymity.

But as even Chuck Feeney came to recognise in recent years, there is a painful choice to make in this position. By remaining anonymous you remove from the equation the powerful influence you can have as a role model.

In his particular case, his agreement to co-operate with the recent biography of him by Conor O’Clery sprang from the strength of his wish to propagate his cherished principle of “giving while living”.

In this country the temptation to do any good that you do by stealth is exceptionally strong. But I believe it is a temptation that must be resisted, for the sake of the greater good. Because as long as the voice of philanthropy remains silent about its own deeds, the less powerful is the enticement for our new rich to participate in this highly valuable and highly fulfilling activity.

Those who choose to keep silent about their own good deeds are, I believe, in fact stifling the further development of philanthropy in this country.

Colin McCrea is senior vice-president of The Atlantic Philanthropies. This article is adapted from remarks given recently at the Ray Murphy Memorial Lecture Series at University College Cork.

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