Monday, November 15, 2010

Generosity Unbound

Generosity Unbound is a book about using philanthropy to provide services currently provided by government. The book launching event is in New York for anyone interested.  Besides recommending the book and putting it on my pre-order list as well, I now have an excuse to discuss a few philanthropy differences between the US and the UK and Europe.

I've mentioned that European conservatives are vastly different than US conservatives because the European variety still sees the state as the solution to problems where as the US variety sees the state as an impediment to solutions.  This charity issue is an excellent illustration.  I came across this article from Germany a few months ago.  It discusses how it is undesirable for billionaires to donate millions to charity because such generous donations might take the place of social welfare programs better run by the state.   The idea of a state solution is just more commonplace in Europe.  I suspect that most Americans reading that article, all but the most hardcore leftists, raised their eyebrows.  The idea of curtailing charity doesn't make sense.

I think the idea of curtailing charity would also seem nonsensical to the UK as well.  But I also suspect that the type of philanthropy presumably suggested in the book would be harder to implement in the UK than the US.

Yesterday the kids and I had lunch at our church vicar's home.  He and his wife hosted a few families for Sunday roast as they like to do.  The church has quite a large number of Americans attending.  At one point the Vicar's wife wanted one of the other guests to tell us about his new job with a Christian philanthropy outfit.  What was striking to her was what a broad base of social work with a Christian perspective the company did.  I gathered that the company is over 100 years old, very well regarded, and apparently one of the few that really engages socially with those it helps.  In other words, she was struck by how much the charity focused on teaching a man to fish rather than giving a man a fish.  I on the other hand, was struck by a comment she made in passing.  She wanted more information on how to volunteer because so many Americans that come to the church ask about where to do hands on charity work, often seeking volunteer opportunities for their children as well.  The flow of the conversation didn't permit me to ask if this was a more American kind of request.

My experience says it might be.  So far, most of the charity work I've seen in the UK is of the fundraiser variety and usually involves only adults.  For instance, M&M is very active in charity work.  Almost single handily, she puts on a Christmas choral concert at the Royal Hospital to benefit her chosen charity, Home Start.  She also has a kids' clothes resale a few times a year.  She has all of us mum friends donate our kids' clothes and sells the used ones for a pound a piece and the tagged and designer stuff (this is Chelsea, Dior baby is actually bought and worn around here) for five pounds.  She donates all the proceeds to Home Start.  (I've told her that I'm stealing her clothes sale idea when I return to Houston.  It is brilliant.  And I like how she concentrates her fire, working with one charity.)  Other friends often discuss fundraising events, ones they are planning and others they attended.  Charitable fundraising is part of life here.

For another illustration, take the differences between PTA's in the US and UK.  A PTA in the US has fundraisers typically for the school--new music room piano, new equipment in the gym--while in the UK, PTA's have fundraisers for charity.   (School improvements are paid for out of tuition.  I'll see if I can find an article raving about some school having a fundraiser for improvements and the reporter taking about how the school was trying to pass off its duties onto the parents.  I can't understate how profound this difference is between the US and UK views of tuition.  But I digress.)  Again, charity work is about fundraising.  At Suzanne Power's and my insistence, we did an Adopt an Angel type charity at the preschool this year.  No one complained or objected, but the default assumption is that charity is about money.

I'm not complaining about fundraising.  It is important, essential even, for charities to raise funds.  And an area with Chelsea's demographics is a great place for raising funds.  I am surprised, though, to learn how much charity in the UK focuses on fundraising.  As I have emerged from the treadmill that is early motherhood, I've started looking for some hands on charity work for myself and to start Christopher Robin, and maybe Cupcake.   I thought that I had not found anything like candy striping, Meals on Wheels, tutoring, prison Bible studies, Habitat for Humanity work days and the like because I'm still a bit preoccupied with domestic life.  Such opportunities just kind of come up at home.  You know someone doing a Bible study at a women's shelter.  Your law firm partnered with a local junior high school for tutoring.  Nordstroms has the Adopt an Angel tree in front of the customer service desk.  You don't need to look that hard for volunteer opportunities.  They find you.  What occurred to me at the vicar's wife's comment is that hands on volunteer opportunities don't find you in the UK; you have to look for them.