On Giving

The Funding Network met on 6 September 2011 in the glamorous surroundings of London’s Mansion House. Before donating over £60,000 to five good causes and their celebrity sponsors, they heard a reflection On Giving by Tom Levitt. He said:

For all the 13 years I was an MP my principal involvement in ‘giving’ was in encouraging others to give by fundraising for various good causes. In my last five years in office I took three charities under my wing as the beneficiaries of my own personal annual fundraising event: the local Citizens Advice Bureau (twice) the Peak District Mountain Rescue Service (twice) and High Peak Victim Support. Through either a sponsored 100 lengths of the local swimming pool (three times) or a sponsored mountain rescue (twice) – great fun coming down from Kinder Scout, on a stretcher, even in the rain – I raised thousands of pounds over those years.

Some of us choose to make our contribution to social change through politics; others through public service and others through volunteering. The world of philanthropy is a relatively new one for me to be moving in, other than having worked with several Community Foundations over the years; I am pleased to hear that some Community Foundations are in the audience tonight.

Philanthropy is a description of quality rather than quantity. It is a state of mind, not a status reserved for the rich. All of us pay towards good causes though our taxes and I have tremendous respect for those who give more through other means. I have even more respect for:

  • those who come together to donate, thereby making their donations more effective;
  • those who decide on who and what to fund through rational means rather than emotion alone;
  • and those who prioritise social change and the emancipation of the human spirit above other causes.

No one does this better than The Funding Network. I first came across TFN not so long ago, when you were very generous indeed to the charity of which I was then the sole patron: READ International. Following your generosity, READ went on to become the International Charity of the Year for 2010 for our work bringing school books surplus to UK requirements to the secondary schools of Tanzania: this year we delivered our one millionth book there, every one matched to the Tanzanian curriculum, as well as our very first book to Uganda as we extend our campaign to that country.

Since leaving the hurly burly of frontline politics the writing and research on charities and communities that I have been doing has helped me realise – more than I ever did from the inside – the limitations on what governments, the state and centralised institutions generally can achieve. Without co-ordination the work of charities, social entrepreneurs, foundations and philanthropists is necessarily piecemeal and creates gaps; it takes a lot to put ego aside and concentrate on coming together to support a cause.

There is another element of TFN’s work which makes it unique: the prize on offer tonight is only £5,000 (though in practice often significantly more) being made available to organisations which have already come through a shortlisting filter – I have sat on the shortlisting committee so I know how taxing that is – and these are organisations to whom £5,000 is a lot of money.

Members of Parliament deal regularly with community groups to whom £500 can make a real difference. In my own former constituency there were based no fewer than eight tiny local charities which worked in Africa – funding a single orphanage, a single well, a single school library. One of my most rewarding days as an MP was my ‘Africa Day’, bringing together those eight charities, two or three larger development charities, DfID, the Co-op as sponsors, an African drumming band and children from a dozen local schools to share their knowledge of and commitment to some of the world’s most deprived and needy people.

It was truly an exciting, positive and ‘fun’ day out for 300 people, mostly children.

I hope to continue this work in my new capacity as Chair of Trustees of Concern Worldwide (UK), one of the large charities currently working to combat famine in the Horn of Africa, which is where my giving currently goes.

Where I think the emphasis in Britain ought to be is on those groups that do not yet have the capacity to put together bids for funding for socially valuable work; those communities that do not have the capacity for generating such groups; and those partnerships which can bring together public sector, third sector and private sector expertise to create those capacities in order to produce truly sustainable community development where it is needed the most.

So thank you for inviting me to say a few words, I do feel honoured to be asked and I look forward to a very cost effective evening of celebrating giving and promoting positive social change.