The power of philanthropy can corrupt and cause damage just as much as good, and must renew itself for modern conditions if it is to bring about positive change in future, Julia Unwin said last night.

In a powerful and provocative lecture at Gresham College titled ‘Philanthropy then, philanthropy now’, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argued that in the future the giving away of large sums of money must be shaped by a humility that the philanthropists of the 19th and 20th centuries did not show.

She argued that the ‘war on poverty’ that was begun by rich and powerful men such as Rowntree himself 100-odd years ago and renewed nearly four decades ago by President LB Johnson in the US has not been won, and a new ‘war on the poor’ has flared instead.

“How did this happen?” she mused. “The war on the poor was a funded war. Just as the democratically-elected government of President Johnson declared war on poverty, so too did a group of powerful, well-resourced and yes, philanthropic institutions, declare war on the poor.”

These people and institutions used the power of their money just as their turn-of-the-century predecessors had, and constructed a “currently triumphant policy framework” that includes elements such as a small state, minimal and conditional welfare and a reliance on faith communities to build cohesion, Unwin said.

“Combined with a sexual orthodoxy, resistance to the emancipation of women and barely-concealed hostility to black and minority ethnic communities, the modern-day Tea Party draws much of its power from the long-term, patient and very thoughtful investment by a group of wealthy foundations.”

Philanthropy of all colours must be allowed to flourish

Unwin, who won the Outstanding Leadership Award at the 2010 Charity Awards, went on to say this story demonstrates the power of money and the ability of careful intervention to change the world. And, she said, it is entirely proper that this occurred.

“Independent organisations must, in a free society, be allowed to use their resource as they wish, and it is of course entirely proper to try to change the world.  The foundations which supported this work were all focused, resolutely, on making a better society. It is just that they start from a different stance to me. As do we all. Philanthropy is never neutral.”

New social contract

But in the future, Unwin said, philanthropy needs reassessing to create a “social contract” fit for the 21st century, so that civil society, the state and markets can work together to lift people out of poverty.

Unprecedented challenges such as climate change, an aging population, and dwindling resources will combine to create a period of transition and disruption as never before, she said.  We may respond by renewing the war on the poor, by blaming our predicament on those who are vulnerable for whatever reason, and end up with a divided society where money is used to protect only the wealthy.  Or we could craft a new social contract, with philanthropy that demonstrates a new sort of humility, that listens to the experiences, aspirations and desires of people who are themselves facing poverty.

Unless modern-day philanthropy is shaped by this, Unwin said, “we will continue to get it badly wrong”.

“Philanthropy now will also need to recognise that it is not the sayings of great men that change the world,” she went on. “It is the power of organised, and frequently desperately disorganised, movement of people, enabled and connected through technology, that will drive real and lasting change.

“Modern philanthropy will support networks of people as much as institutions, and it will enable dialogue, as much if not more than broadcast.”

She concluded by saying that 21st century philanthropists will also need to affirm the same values that inspired philanthropy in Joseph Rowntree’s day: “An absolute belief in the importance of every human being.  An overriding commitment to secure a settlement in which all can flourish. And the prospect of better lives for all.”

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