Poppies, philanthropy and philosophy

That’s a fairly heady combination – occasioned by taking part in the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy conference on “the peculiar institution of charity” at Cass Business School, London. Friends suggested meeting at the Tower of London beforehand to view the moat, filled with ceramic poppies to honour the UK’s war dead. The installation has divided opinion – with some taking particular exception to the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones criticising the “fake nobility” of the memorial, and to his alternative suggestion that the moat should be filled with barbed wire and bones. In the steady rain a large number of volunteers were at work removing the poppies one by one, for distribution to those who’ve purchased them at £25 a time. Thanks to the generosity of visitors to the Tower, additional funds will be raised because many have contributed by throwing coins into the moat – though extracting the coins from the mud will be another job, presumably, for the hardy volunteers.

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Although selling the poppies will raise substantial sums – six charities are each expected to receive at least £1.2Mn – critics have also pointed out that the private investors who lent money to fund the project will also receive returns on their investment. Which raised a question – shouldn’t we know who these people are, and the extent to which they are benefiting? And isn’t that also the case for social investors more generally?

The theme of investment – social or otherwise – was picked up in the conference at Cass. The meeting was convened to discuss the challenges of meeting the public’s expectations about charity, the extent to which moral understandings of charity are being questioned, and the considerations which do – or ought to – enter into the decisions and practices of donors and funders. Debate ranged widely: Aquinas, Kant, Locke, Mill; notions of need and desert;  relationships between givers and receivers; the effectiveness of charities and the need for donors to consider it, as well as the need for better information on competing charities, when making funding decisions; whether the ends justified the means employed in fundraising; whether charities had simply been reduced to deliverers of services at the expense of the wider social relationships in which they were embedded; notions of compassion in charitable acts;  and social returns on investment. None of these are new debates but the mix of academic and practitioner expertise contributed to a lively exchange and in a time when the expectations of charities are high, and donors increasingly expecting much of the organisations they support, it is to be hoped the conversation will continue. Keep an eye on www.cgap.org.uk for more, and more on this site about one particular element of the discussion.

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