Philanthropy in the UK is now enjoying a higher positive profile as a result of encouragement from government initiatives and greater interest by the media. However, there remains a lack of rigorous, independent research to provide an authoritative basis for our understanding of philanthropic activity.
One reason is that a lot of academic research, especially in economics and the social sciences, continues to rely on an arguably outdated model of ‘rational self-interested man’. If the pursuit of personal gain is assumed to be the driving force behind individual action, then altruistic behaviour is easily dismissed as irrational or disguised self-interest.
Another reason that philanthropic research barely exists in the UK is because of the widespread assumption that only public institutions, rather than private arrangements, are engaged in meeting needs. For example, poverty research has focused almost exclusively on the role of tax policies and the welfare state, whilst neglecting the powerful potential of philanthropy.
The Centre for the Research of Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice was established in 2008 to focus on research that develops an alternative perspective, based in a belief that private wealth can promote public benefit and that philanthropy is an important economic and social activity in modern societies that needs to be fully understood in order for its full potential to be unleashed.
The academic and practical aims of the new centre are:
- Furthering the study of philanthropic motivations, social patterns of giving and redistributive impacts to create a robust knowledge base about giving decisions and the consequences of donations
- Understanding the social processes, cultural conditions, economic arrangements, political contexts and institutional parameters that influence people’s decisions to care, or not to care, for the needs of others.
- Documenting the impact of philanthropy and humanitarianism on social policy and political processes, and investigating the interaction between private and public acts to further the common good.
- Working with practitioners in both British and international charities to ensure incorporation of the view ‘from the front line’ and to provide opportunities for charity staff to develop their knowledge and ideas through professional development.
- Ensuring that all new information generated by the Centre is disseminated to those who are working to develop more humane forms of society, including philanthropists, charities, people working in government and public policy and those influencing opinion in the public sphere, notably the media.
We are currently undertaking six research projects during 2009-2011, as part of our work within the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, funded by ESRC, the Office of the Third Sector, the Carnegie UK Trust and the Scottish Government:
1. Donors’ awareness of the nature and distribution of charitable benefit.
2. The role that perceptions of need plays in donors’ selection of beneficiaries.
3. Relationships between givers & receivers and the social space bridged by donations.
4. The representation of need in charitable appeals and its impact on beneficiaries.
5. The influence of class background on charitable giving.
6. The organisational and social meaning of corporate charitable donations.