Thursday, 9 December 2010

"Why can't we be more like America?"

Yesterday saw the launch of DCMS’s strategy for developing philanthropy. At the heart of much of the media debate around this was the comparison with the US where levels of giving, especially to the arts, are much higher (see Wednesday’s Today programme on Radio 4). Now I am a big believer in the value of learning from our peers around the world, but that learning has to be within a cultural context.

Avid readers of Fab will know that I’ve spent time in the US, most recently in April this year, picking up ideas about how non profit sector leaders are being supported. While at the GEO conference in Pittsburgh I learned of an initiative whereby foundations support sector leaders in taking sabbaticals allowing them the kind of space for personal development they would never otherwise have and also hugely benefitting their organisations. I was really pleased that ACEVO was able to host Claire Peeps from the Durfee Foundation based in LA which had supported this work at our National Conference to explore how it could be applied to foundations here.

Of course international learning works both ways. Last week I was in Toronto speaking to Philanthropic Foundations Canada about the work ACEVO has done on full cost recovery. The previous day had seen the launch of the Canadian taskforce on social finance which had drawn very heavily on similar work in the UK. It was strange to be sitting in an auditorium in Toronto hearing about the great example of a social impact bond pilot at HM Peterborough being led by the St Giles Trust, but it was a very powerful illustration of how much influence the UK sector has around the globe.

International learning can be really valuable, but an understanding of the cultures concerned is vital if those lessons are to have relevance. My colleagues in Euclid Network, have found this a particularly interesting in promoting networks of civil society leaders across Europe. How does one do this in Germany, where the whole concept of leadership is a fundamentally difficult one?

The Coalition Government has spend a great deal of time in looking at the USA as a model for many of the kinds of reforms which they want to see. Various gurus have come across the pond to help the government articulate the Big Society narrative. In some areas such as policing and welfare to work provision it seems that these will be fruitful lessons.

But giving is different. I’m no expert on the topic, but in my conversations with non profit folk in the US about the relationship between the public, the state and the sector, it’s clear that America’s history and national narrative, going right back to the founding fathers, looms large.

America was created in revolution. It was a reaction against a government, that of King George III, but in many ways that identity has become a reaction against government of all forms. Hence the Tea Party can attract so much support to the bafflement of Europeans.

The motivations for philanthropy in the US need to be understood in this context. The idea of giving as a duty is stronger in the US than it is in the UK because there is less shared expectation or desire for the state to act. It’s not so much that Americans give because the state can’t act, its more that they give because they don’t want the state to act. Therefore the culture of giving has become engrained over generations and become a norm.

This is a very crude generalization, but it is important to understand some of these differences. DCMS want to encourage philanthropy because they have less money to fund the arts. Public spending is going to fall in many areas such as the arts so giving must increase to save national treasures as well as essential services.

Even if people accept this necessity, it’s not quite the same motivation for giving as you find across America. Britons would still rather the state acted in the first place. And therefore the lessons won’t always quite fit. For a change in cultural norms in the UK to result in more giving people need to feel more than a greater sense of altruism or community spirit, and indeed it will take more than people knowing that the state is unable to act. For the culture of giving to better reflect America people will need to feel that they don’t want the state to act, and that’s a much bigger task for the government.

Of course I am all for initiatives to promote more giving, and there are definitely lessons to be learned from the US, but these initiatives need to be in a UK context and not pretend that we just less generous Americans.

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