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How to Persuade Ireland’s Newly Wealthy to Become Philanthropists

Resource type: Speech

Colin McCrea |

Steps to encourage Ireland’s new wealthy class to give generously, thoughtfully and publicly to philanthropy are discussed in this speech by Colin McCrea, Senior Vice President, Programmes, The Atlantic Philanthropies, at the inaugural Ray Murphy Memorial Lecture.

Like Bill White, I share the aspiration that there should be more philanthropy in Ireland – though, along with his keen appreciation of the joys of giving, we in Atlantic Philanthropies have a more urgent motivation for seeing this happen.

Over the past two decades our grant-making in this country has increased the capacity of a wide range of voluntary organisations. But because our strategy is to spend down our endowment on the “giving when living” principle, we will be gone completely from the scene within nine years. We are obviously anxious that those organisations should not collapse from want of resources, and we therefore have a strong vested interest in the development of philanthropy among Ireland’s new rich.

In a sense, what we are addressing here is a paradox.

The Irish people in general have always shown themselves generous in giving to charity, and this is a national characteristic that long pre-dates the Celtic Tiger. Based on that experience and coming from a sharing culture, 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.

It seems to me that there are three basic questions that need to be addressed.

The first is:

How can we encourage this new generation of Irish wealthy to devote a significant amount of their resources to philanthropy?

The second is:

Assuming that they can encouraged to give, how can they be persuaded to do their giving not in an ad hoc fashion but in a carefully structured way, so that their giving delivers the most “bang per buck”?

And 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? (Though this may sound odd coming from Atlantic I’ll explain later what I mean.)

In the few minutes available to me, I should like to touch briefly on each of these three issues.

To take the first question, how can we persuade these people to give?

Let me first of all acknowledge the obvious truth that their money is theirs to do with as they alone think fit. In the Eamonn Dunphy interview last Saturday Chuck said “I’ve been unwilling to tell people what they should do with their money but I guess my attitude today is “try it, you’ll like it”. 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”.

But while lecturing is out of the question, enticement certainly is on the table.

That is one reason why I welcome the establishment of the Ray Murphy Memorial Lectures. That is one reason too why I welcome 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.

These initiatives give us 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 have long proved themselves to be.

There is 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 decision-making 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.

Adopting such an attitude would be, in fact, from the State’s point of view, a self-interested one. The State needs philanthropy as part of the way it achieves its own ends. This is not to suggest that the main role of philanthropy is to fill gaps in the State’s own provision, though circumstances do indeed often thrust it into that role.

I am thinking more of the way that philanthropists, acting in partnership with the State, can act as pathfinders in areas of common interest. Philanthropists can show the way because by their very nature they can act more swiftly and are more open to taking big risks. And after philanthropy has beaten the path, the State can then move in on territory that has already been proven to show worthwhile results.

Neither the State nor philanthropy, acting on their own, can do it all. But acting together in partnership, they can change the world. And this is the thinking that should inform our approach to reforming our taxation system to be more accommodating of the needs of philanthropy.

“Acting together in partnership, the State and philanthropy can change the world”. That is a big hairy claim, but it is no less than the truth. And stating it highlights the difference between charity and philanthropy, and opens the case for structured rather than ad hoc giving.

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, and that is why – if approached in the right way – it can indeed change the world. That, for instance, is clearly the motivation of Bill Gates, who has not only already given away a large part of his immense fortune, but has also given up his day job so that he can devote the rest of his life to his philanthropic activities.

That is a wonderful headline to follow, but it also draws attention to a problem that some wealthy people see in philanthropy.

Philanthropy is a lot, lot more than simply giving out money to people who asks for it. Only a few really extraordinary people, like Bill Gates and like Atlantic’s founder 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 business-like and efficient way.

But if we want to nurture philanthropy in Ireland to the maximum possible extent, 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 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’s noteworthy, I think, that in the United States a number of business organisations have emerged to fill precisely this need. It seems to me that in this country that need perhaps creates a business opportunity for those banks which seek to specialise in the management of the wealth of individuals of high net worth.

That’s one kind of new infrastructure that we need.

Another is the development of a skills bank in fund-raising, and a similar skills bank in the administration of philanthropic funds. It’s easy to forget the importance of the asker in the philanthropic equation: to develop philanthropy properly in Ireland we need skilled askers almost as much as we need givers, and we also need more people who are properly trained in the management of philanthropic resources. There is a qualifications gap here that our third-level system should look to address.

Finally, let me touch briefly on my third question: how can our new wealthy be persuaded to publicise their generosity rather than doing good by stealth?

To put this forward as a need may seem strange on the part of someone from Atlantic Philanthropies, an organisation that until quite recently was obsessive in the importance we attached to anonymity!

It’s true that for many years our founder Chuck Feeney favoured the stealth route because he believed, as many people do, that the best giving is that which does not shout its merits from every housetop. That approach represents a very deeply held instinctive value that I believe is shared by many – if not most – people.

But as even Chuck Feeney came to recognise in recent years, there is a painful paradox in this position. By remaining anonymous you remove from the equation the very powerful influence you can have as an example and as a role model. In his particular case, his agreement to co-operate with the recent biography of him by Conor O’Clery and the Eamon Dunphy interview, 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.

Thank you very much indeed.