News & Insight
24th October 2017
“If the State Provides Less, Who Will Provide More?”
“If the State Provides Less, Who Will Provide More?” was a panel discussion hosted by Philanthropy Company and Marshall Institute at the London School of Economics on Thursday 19th October 2017. The event convened a panel and audience to discuss questions prompted by John Nickson’s timely book, “Our Common Good”.
Professor Sir Julian Le Grand chaired the event. The panellists were: John Nickson, Author; Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Chair and Co-Founder of UpRising; Dawn Austwick OBE, Chief Executive, Big Lottery Fund; and Chris Wright, Chief Executive, Catch 22.
Britain is changing. Public funding is decreasing and philanthropic funding is stagnant. Over half of small local charities think they won’t exist in 5 years. The context is Brexit, Trump, and tragic events like Grenfell; and the problems include a growing wealth gap, rising mental health, and a wholesale change to welfare provision.
It was against this backdrop that John Nickson asked the panel, “Can we recreate the Common Good in the 21st century Britain and thereby ensure that future generations inherit a thriving, healthy society and liberal democracy?” One where each sector comes together—through respective strengths—to address civil needs. And what role does philanthropy play in this new settlement?
The evening saw panellists reflect and deliberate on the question, along with excellent contributions and questions from the audience. Rushanara began the responses by agreeing with John that the state’s commitment to the common good is a prerequisite for philanthropy. The connectivity, insight, and reach from the third sector are needed, yet the current situation feels existential for many in the charity sector. Is the third sector a substitute for public services, or complimentary?
A further point was raised by Dawn. Are we talking about who does what, or who pays for what? It’s a sentiment echoed by audience members too. If we are thinking about who pays for what then, sadly, philanthropy is a drop in an ocean, or a ‘dot in pie’ as Dawn puts it. This isn’t to say that philanthropy isn’t vitally important to society and many people and organisations across the UK, but rather we need to recognise that government funding is always significantly bigger. So the question becomes who does what? What should philanthropy do?
There was a clear view that innovation is one strength of philanthropy. Government doesn’t do this very well and we need small enterprises to take the lead. Chris thought that charities could contribute more to public services: not by necessarily replacing them, but by unlocking how public expenditure is delivered. The point made was that bureaucracy and compliance has increased dramatically in the last 35 years, and services can remain ineffective or inefficient. He offered the example of the children in care system that costs £7bn per year, and yet 27% of UK prisoners have been in the children in care system. Something isn’t working. Charities can show what works, and help change the delivery and outcomes of public services.
Julian probed provocatively with the question of whether we really want to go back to ‘old-fashioned philanthropy’, where, before the welfare state, we had patchy and inefficient charities and social enterprises, all of which were democratically unaccountable. The panel responded with a resounding “no”. It’s about going forward and redefining roles. Old-fashioned philanthropy is just not an option, and the power of state to help people and be accountable should not be dismissed.
John agreed. It’s not a matter of “governments getting out of the way”. He believes that while bottom up change is most likely, we need to collaborate and help public sector do better. There is however a question about the framework in which charities operate. Deregulation destroys framework of innovation and social investment, as does a crisis of funding. How can we use a common good framework to do better?
An audience member contributed to say that we need philanthropy to map onto social need. The problem with just ‘more philanthropy’ is that it’s often donor or brand led, and we end up with patches of elite institutions getting a disproportionate amount. Any common good framework needs to be collaborative. Chris pointed out that the state doesn’t provide comprehensive cover either, but agrees broadly with the comment saying that it is about reimagining our collective contribution. Philanthropy is driven sometimes by individual donor motivation, but we should give people more control and choice in their communities. We also need to do it in a more systematic way.
There was agreement from the panellists that collaboration between public, private, and the third sector is critical. While we need to be realistic about what philanthropy can achieve financially, there is great opportunity for philanthropy to innovate and work closely with government to improve service delivery. But we should be clear on the priorities for philanthropy first. Strategy is needed. We also need the state to commit to the Common Good.
John thinks that it is important to look at what is happening on the ground and not just abstract ideas. There are some remarkable examples of collaborative and effective practice springing up across Britain, from Onside Youth Zones to Lancashire police setting up a social enterprise to reduce reoffending. We need a Common Good programme to bring the sector together. We’ve had the theory, and he’s now very interested in the practice.
The evening was brought to a close by a pertinent quote from John,
“Some worry about the public accountability of private philanthropy. However, if philanthropists are in partnership with the public sector then public and private benefit become allied and philanthropy becomes accountable.
This is what happened in Northern Ireland where I doubt that the peace process would have happened without Chuck Feeny’s hundreds of millions given to cross community projects. At the other end of the scale, read pages 268 to 274 of my book to learn how two former paramilitaries and political prisoners are using community philanthropy and social enterprise to regenerate parts of working class Lisburn. This is the Common Good in action. Their inspiring example of renewal and reconciliation could be replicated across the UK”
Philanthropy Company and Marshall Institute would like to thank the Chair, panellists, and audience for contributing to an engaging evening. A podcast of the event will be available shortly.
John Nickson’s book, “Our Common Good”, is available here: https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/our-common-good