Why can’t the British enjoy philanthropy?

by Stephen Tall on November 5, 2009

Each week, the Guardian Money blog poses a question from a reader. Here’s the latest:

Is it wise to donate money to my former university?
A reader wonders whether to bow to pressure to make a donation to their alma mater

Am I alone in being hounded for money by my former university and unsure whether to make a donation? In a weak moment after yet another call I was thinking of sending them £300. I’m now wondering whether an international charity might make better use of the money. If I pay up, will they chase me forever more?

What are your thoughts?

There’s the invitation – here are my thoughts.

I’m not sure what the Guardian reader means by being “hounded”. My guess is s/he means they’ve been asked once, maybe twice – at a very remote, outside chance, three times – in the last year or so to make a donation to their university, through a combination of letter and phone. That’s not a contact rate I regard as “hounding”. (I bet British Gas has direct-mailed or called them more times than that).

But it’s a common language folk use to denigrate fundraising. It’s by no means the only example: references to “begging letters” and “begging bowls”, “cold calling” and “double-glazing salesman” are common enough when talking about charity.

It’s a typical British distancing technique: as a nation, we’re generally speaking a charitable lot, but (because we’re British) we also feel the need to be cool and aloof at the same time. The Guardian reader, above, is normal enough: s/he has already proven their potential generosity by considering a £300 gift. But, worried that such a statement might make them appear smug or self-congratulatory, they feel their only option is to diss their own philanthropic act; to make it sound like they are being conned out of a donation, and will only give it under duress (“in a weak moment”).

What is it about the British that they can’t take some quite respectable pleasure in giving away their money without then putting down both themselves and the charity in question?

Rant over, here’s five points I would have made if I was writing to the Guardian reader as a fundraiser:

1. We are most grateful to you for considering a gift of £300. As a result of the generosity of many alumni like you, the University has been able to expand its bursary provision, safeguard its teaching and research programmes, and invest in its facilities. We could not have done what we do without the gifts of our donors.

2. I am very sorry if, in any way, you feel we have been “hounding” you: this is the last thing we would want to do. Our aim is to communicate to our donors in a way that keeps them informed about what the university is doing with their gifts. Many welcome these phone calls and letters; however, we realise that some will find them intrusive. Please be assured we will try and be more sensitive to your wishes in this regard in the future.

3. We would, naturally, be delighted if you choose to make another gift to the university. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to set up a regular gift, whether monthly or annually, for an amount with which you are comfortable. This enables the university to plan for the future with confidence; equally, it means you are not being asked in a way you find frustrating.

4. It is, of course, entirely your choice which charities to support: I would never say that this university takes precedence over a humanitarian charity. Both are crucial in helping create a better world. We believe education is the most powerful tool you can equip people with. Though we welcome gifts to the university generally, as it enables us to respond flexibly to the greatest current needs, please be assured that if you prefer to designate your gift to a specific cause – for example, student bursaries – we will honour your wish, and ensure your donation goes directly to support the next generation of students.

5. Finally, may I stress once again our gratitude for you considering a gift to our institution. I hope we will have the opportunity to prove to you quite what an impact your donation will have.