Back to the Future: Who’s to blame when philanthropic support ebbs away?

Just back at work after a lovely break in North Yorkshire. Today I’m on my way to attend an ESRC seminar at Newcastle University on newly emerging roles and relationships between the VCS (voluntary & community sector), communities and the local state. I’m looking forward to hearing the papers and getting my brain back into gear.

But I did get some philanthropic food for thought during my hols. We visited Rievaulx Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1132 which at its peak housed 650 monks & lay brothers and was one of England’s wealthiest monasteries. The abbey’s income came from philanthropy and from trading: the monks received donations of land from patrons, money from visiting pilgrims and earnt income by mining lead and iron, rearing sheep and selling wool to buyers from all over Europe.

Henry VIII usually gets the blame for closing down these allegedly thriving centres, which also provided some health and welfare services to the local poor population, but in fact by the time of the Dissolution only a handful of monks and brothers were left. From being a thriving and rich community in the mid 12th century, Rievaulx’s fortunes fell dramatically as a result of bad management (debt incurred on building projects), bad luck (the Black Death and sheep scab) and changing social norms (rising individualism and declining attractiveness of monastic life).

The moral of the story? Organisations that rely on philanthropy and volunteering can only continue to exist if they are well-managed, have some luck and chime with the mood of the times. Every organisation that struggles to survive in 2009 will blame the recession, but like the monks blaming Henry VIII, that won’t necessarily be the whole story.

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