I agree with Lord Ashcroft (on Legacy10 and the joy of giving)

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2011

Lord (Michael) Ashcroft is a controversial figure in politics. Looking back through my archives, I’ve posted some critical stuff myself, notably here and here.

But he’s posted an article today on ConservativeHome — The joy of giving: why the rich should be encouraged to become more philanthropic — with which I can almost 100% agree:

It was Gamaliel Bailey, the 19th century American journalist, who wrote: “Never respect men merely for their riches, but rather for their philanthropy; we do not value the sun for its height, but for its use.”

I was reminded of Bailey’s perceptive quote from nearly 200 years ago when I learnt about the launch Wednesday afternoon of a splendid new initiative called “Legacy10”, which aims to get ten per cent of the UK population to give away ten per cent of their estate to charity in their wills.

You can find out more about the Legacy10 initiative here. And if you want you can find out how I (finally) got round to leaving money to charities in my own will here.

What’s also interesting about Lord Ashcroft’s article is his explanation for his own motivations for what he looks for in charities:

I have generally favoured giving money to charities and good causes in which I have some involvement. I hate seeing precious resources squandered and I prefer to take a hands-on approach. This enables me to drive a project forward rather than risk giving money to a badly-run charity and see it frittered away or remain stagnant in a bank account.

That, increasingly, is what many donors want and expect from their philanthropic involvement.

So why did I write earlier ‘I can almost 100% agree’ with Lord Ashcroft?

Well, he’s certainly correct that the very richest in this country have often been very poor about giving their money away: nouveau riche America is much more generous than inherited wealth Britain. And the difference isn’t simply geographic — the richest Brits are proportionately much less generous than the poorest, as surveys have consistently shown (see my article here from July 2010).

So there is certainly a big, big role that the richest in society can play in giving more of their money away to good causes which will create real impact.

But the beauty of the Legacy10 campaign is simple: almost everyone can afford to give away 10% of their wealth when they die. That’s the whole premise of the ‘widow’s mite’: it’s not the absolute amount you give but the relative amount.

For many, myself included I expect, the biggest charitable gift we can afford to make will be in our will when we die. If you die owning your own property, you will be able to make a five-figure gift to charity — which is, unless you’re paralysed by morbidity, actually quite an exciting thought: how could I make a difference to the lives of others beyond death?