How mean are the rich in Britain? Why should we bothered about what they do with their money, whether or not they pay tax or are philanthropic? Who cares?
The answer is surprising for some of the richest people in Britain are furious with their peers who do not give and pay tax. I discovered this when researching my book Giving Is Good For You. Some of the criticism was so tough it didn't get pass the lawyers. After more than thirty years as a head of fundraising, charity trustee and donor, I retired from Tate concerned that only a minority of the wealthy is philanthropic despite phenomenal growth in personal wealth. I asked leading benefactors for their opinion and they encouraged me to write a book to persuade those who opt out of society to follow the leadership of those who put the common good above self -interest.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the collective wealth of the one thousand richest people in the UK has increased by 300% since the millenium, whilst tax revenues and the income of 99% of the population have declined in real terms. Meanwhile, charitable giving fell by 20% last year according to the National Council For Voluntary Organisations ( NVCO). Inequality may not be noticed during an economic boom but becomes a problem during an economic crisis because we now have evidence that the most unequal societies are the most dysfunctional, violent and unhealthy.
Proportionately, the poorest 10% give three times more of their income than the richest 10%. Whilst 98% of US higher tax rate claim tax relief for charitable giving, the equivalent figure in Britain is 28%. Figures from the tax authorities (excluding those who have family charitable trusts) suggest that those with £200,000 plus a year may be giving as little as 0.27% of their income.
Higher taxes for the rich are not a realistic option without international agreement. The British have consistently voted for governments pledged not to increase personal taxes on anyone. The case for high tax was lost thirty years ago in the Reagan/Thatcher era.There is, however, a case to be made for the rich to become more charitable.
Humans have been programmed to give since the beginning of time. Altruism has given us an evolutionary advantage. Just as the imperative need to eat and have sex is rewarded with pleasurable feelings, giving also makes us feel good. Ask any donor. Everything we value in our civil society has its foundation in philanthropy. By not giving and not paying our taxes, we are in danger of losing the plot and undermining everything we value and take for granted. Look at Greece.
Believing the case for giving is best made by the generous, I interviewed donors in various parts of Britain. The interviews were a revelation and inspirational. These are people who refuse to be daunted by the scale of our problems and who prove personal leadership can make a difference. Regarding those who don't give or pay tax, a member of one of Britain's most famous billionaire families told me: "What has gone wrong is any sense of responsibility. The real problem is the non-dom business for British citizens, it is causing such inequality and bad feeling..by not taking up the possibility of giving, some of the rich are generating culture in which they are despised. If we continue to have a society that encourages unfairness and a lack of responsibility, if some of the rich fail to engage and to contribute, then we are heading for trouble".
How do we get out of trouble? We appear to be at a defining moment as both the public and private sectors have hit the buffers. There are signs of recovery but have we cured the patient? The state is in retreat and we need a stronger voluntary sector. Is this the time for a new social contract? What are the implications for the wealthy and for our government? What is the responsibility of the rest of us? I put these questions to philanthropists and charities across the country and, together, we have produced some challenging answers. There is a solution.
John Nickson's book 'Giving is Good For You' is out now via Biteback publishing. John Nickson is also guest speaker at The Funding Network's next crowd-funding event on 26 September, 6pm with UK charities Streetdoctors, Vitality, The Eikon Charity and The International Refugee Trust all showcasing their work in order to raise vital funds, see here for details - thefundingnetwork.org.uk
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