08/01/2014 11:43 GMT | Updated 10/03/2014 05:59 GMT

A Good Deed in a World of Austerity

In the first days of 2014, the government confirmed further public spending cuts of £25billion and a 29-year-old American announced a charitable donation of $990m. Is there a connection, and why should such a vast donation matter to you?

Mark Zuckerberg , Facebook's founder, is a billionaire twenty times over and you might think he could spare the odd billion. He clearly agrees but what is significant about this donation is that it is the first time that a philanthropist under the age of 30 has made such an enormous gift. Most donors start giving later in life after they have finished accumulating. Moreover, Zuckerberg chose to give almost a billion dollars to a charity supporting neighbourhood projects rather than to a personal foundation or to a grand project bearing his name.

Zuckerberg is providing the kind of leadership we need in Britain where only a minority of the wealthy is generous. Not many of those under 50 who have made substantial fortunes are prepared to give away such a large chunk. Moreover, his decision to give to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has relevance for all who wish to give to charity.

There are almost 70 local Community Foundations in Britain. Community Foundations started in the US more than a hundred years ago and have proved a successful vehicle for matching local generosity with local needs. The Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation was the first in Britain and after 25 years has an endowment from local donors now worth £45million and last year awarded £5.4million in 1,565 grants to local projects. Nationally, Community Foundations made 22,000 grants to local projects in 2011, worth £63million.

Community Foundations matter because they are for all of us, whether we are giving or receiving. They welcome all levels of donations and a donation of £1 can be matched by 50p from government. This is charity at a local level to which we can all relate.

Philanthropy means little to most people who think giving is only for the very rich. The state provides and charity is for disasters in far off places, for animals, cancer and for Red Nose Day. Current circumstances require a re-think. Public spending will almost certainly fall whoever wins next year's election. The state has never been able to meet all the demands made upon it and will be less able in the future. Unless we are prepared to pay more tax, the poor will almost certainly become even poorer and the rich will become even richer.

We need a debate in Britain about how we are going to pay for the voluntary sector to meet all the extra demands that will be put upon it. We should also acknowledge that just as the state cannot pay for everything, neither can charitable donations which fell last year to less than £10 billion. We would not be able to compensate for planned welfare cuts even if we were to double charitable giving.

Where do we go from here? If government is serious about encouraging more philanthropy, we need consistent policies backed by all parties to encourage more of us, and more of the rich in particular, to give very much more. We also need to strike a bargain between the state and the citizen about about who pays for what. In the low tax USA, everyone pays tax and if you are rich, you give. In Britain, too many of the rich pay too little tax and don't give. What do our politicians think? Are philanthropy and the needs of the voluntary sector on their radar? Apart from a few of the enlightened, I don't think so.

David Cameron is reported to be talking about the Big Society again. What does he mean and what does he intend? The answer to these questions matters to us all. Whilst we wait, salute Mark Zuckerberg because he has done the right thing in supporting his community. And salute the elderly woman who sticks a pound coin to a piece of cardboard every month and sends it to The Passage, a charity supporting the homeless in Westminster.

Everyone can be a philanthropist. We will need more of them.

John Nickson is the author of GIVING IS GOOD FOR YOU: WHY BRITAIN SHOULD BE BOTHERED AND GIVE MORE. He is giving his royalties to charity.