If sneak previews of the forthcoming Sunday Times Rich list are to be believed, this coming Sunday will confirm that (Lord) David Sainsbury has become the first Brit to give away a billion pounds to charity.
Ted Turner started the billanthropy ball rollling in 1997, when he pledged $1 billion to support the United Nations. Since then, the US has seen a number of billion dollar donors, notably Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who each committed over $30 billion to the mammoth Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So why has it taken this long for a Brit to join the billanthropy club?
It’s true that a million pounds sterling still goes a bit further than a million dollars, but once you reach this level of giving, it does seem that the idea of ‘a million’ or ‘a billion’ has a cultural significance of it’s own, that defies exchange rates. There’s some sort of resonance involved in giving those sums that £990,000 or $990,000,000 just don’t have.
This is why we decided to launch our research centre with a study of Million Pound Donors, collating and analysing data on every UK donation worth £1 million or more. That report is still available at http://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/cphsj/research/couttsmilliondonor.html
In the charity sector people easily understand why we picked £1m as the figure on which to base our study, but in academic circles we risk being accused of picking an arbitrary figure – “what’s the methodological defence for excluding donations of £999k and including those of £1m and 1p?”. This is a good example of ivory tower-itis (every fundraiser knows the difference between a big donor and a million pound donor), but we do have an argument up our sleeve. We are replicating the very successful ‘Million Dollar Donor’ list run by Indiana University in the US for many years. Building on established research is, apparently, more ok than building on fundraising common sense. But mention of the million dollar list reminds us that in the year covered by our first report (2006/07), when we found 193 donations worth £1m or in the UK, our colleagues in Indiana found thousands of $1m+ donations.
So we should definitely cheer the news that UK philanthropy has it’s first member of the billanthropy club, but we shouldn’t expect anyone across the pond to be especially impressed.