Mastering altruism and philanthropy

Dec 1, 2018 | 0 comments

With so many people and organisation seeking your help, how do you decide
how and where to direct or withhold your philanthropy?
Well, here are some questions that might help you draw up your own philanthropy manifesto.

Start by watching my introductory video below (click on the bar under the video to read the full text).
Then spend some time on self reflection and further reading.

How to master philanthropy and altruism

HELLO. ITS JEREMY here to welcome you to this presentation on philanthropy and charitable giving.

It was a privilege to enter the Great North Run again this year along with 57,000 other runners. It was also a privilege to raise money for a cause that I supported. THIS YEAR IT was a charity that organises trips for sick and disabled people to Lourdes, a Catholic shrine and place of healing in the French Pyrenees. For these pilgrims, it is often the highlight of their year. The charity helps with travel and accommodation fees for these pilgrims unable to afford the cost so raising funds for the charity is important.

JUST LOOKING AROUND as we waited to cross the Great North Run start line in Newcastle last September I JUDGED THAT over 90% of the runners were raising money for a charity or cause. Research by the Great Runs, which organises the event, found that PARTICIPANTS RAISED £54 million across all their events in 2016, OF WHICH A STAGGERING £26 million was raised in the flagship Great North Run.

And as I waited I fell to wondering how on earth all these people decided which organisation to support. For some it was obviously a very personal choice. They were running in memory of someone who was sick or who had died, and they were raising funds for the organisation that had provided support to that person.

Others were supporting charities working with young people or in the field of education. Some were supporting charities providing water, food, healthcare or education in deprived parts of the world. Medical research was strongly supported, as was animal welfare.

From my own straw poll I judged that around two thirds of fundraising was for medical research and the care of the sick and dying. Around one third was directed towards the younger generations, the healthy living in deprivation, conflict or restraint, and other miscellaneous causes.

And what was our motivation. Did we 57,000 enter the race to run 13.1 miles and possibly obtain a personal best and, whilst we were about it, raise some money. Or did we run the race only to raise money for our cause and were only concerned to finish the run regardless of our time. Either way we made a conscious effort to train, run and fundraise for a cause we supported.

But what about THE FLIP SIDE of the coin, when someone comes to you to ask for money. Every year in December the LOCAL LIONS CLUB dresses up an old Landrover as a sleigh and its members as Fr Christmas. They drive round our village playing assorted Christmas carols and knock on our doors to raise money.

Its not a big thing and a note usually salves any feelings of guilt. However, it RAISES QUESTIONS: who will the money BENEFIT and how will it be spent. IS IT A CAUSE that I actually want to support? By giving to them, am I depriving ANOTHER CHARITY of money they might have far more need of. In the run up to Christmas, traditionally a time for charity and helping others, SHOULD I SAY NO from time to time? If so, how do I do it in a way that is polite, positive and guilt free?

In summary, THERE ARE A FEW questions you need to answer when it comes to satisfying your altruistic objectives, not least:

WHO DO YOU choose who to support?
HOW DO YOU SUPPORT them and with how much of your personal resources?
HOW DO YOU DECIDE when to say ‘No’ and how do you say ‘No’

Before we start to answer these questions lets just look at what philanthropy and giving really mean. So far we have talked in fairly standard terms about raising money and donating money. However, altruism is much wider than that, of course. Its any disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others, and we can do that in many ways

At it simplest, philanthropy can involve putting a few coins in the collecting jar when its presented on a street corner. Or, as I have already described, you can go out and do something crazy to raise funds (my favourite running shirt a the GNR read ’13.1. Only half crazy’).

Or maybe you donate your time, energy and skills, rather than money, to a cause. You may, as I have done, serve as a volunteer governor on the board of your local school, or you may spend a day a week helping out at your local care home. As well as raising money for the Lourdes charity I mentioned earlier, I also travel with the pilgrimage to Lourdes for a week in July and help out with the sick on the ground.

In the UK the Charity Commission, which regulates the charitable sector, has just announced that 40% of small charities are providing inaccurate financial information, so if you are an accountant or bookkeeper wanting to donate your skills in this area you might find a charity in urgent need of your help right on your doorstep.

You may decide to gift a capital sum to your selected cause, either during life or through your will on death. Indeed, legacy giving is becoming a significant source of funding for many charities.

You may want to invest in a cause, rather than donate. In so doing you may invest for a full financial return, or a purely social return, or some combination (often known as blended returns).

You can now easily invest in a huge range of businesses through crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or Crowdcube. Here you can select investments that meet your criteria for a better world and still obtain a financial return. Or you might invest in a social return fund that provides a limited financial return whilst benefiting the community is some way.

Finally, of course, you could establish your own charitable foundation, giving you scope to direct cash to anywhere you want to make a difference.

So, with all these choices, how do you decide how and where to direct or withhold your resources? Well, here are some questions that might help, which you can DOWNLOAD FROM THE accompanying post.

LETS FIRST DISCOVER where you might want to direct your resources?

Do you want to SUPPORT LOCAL, national, international or overseas causes? Do you think your resources are better allocated to your local community or to the developing world? Are there specific countries or regions that attract you?

Some projects might be seen as THE RESPONSIBILITY of the Government, not a charitable organisation. Do you want to avoid charities that step in where Government cannot or will not intervene?

Which AREAS OF CONCERN do you feel passionate about and want to make a difference. Here are some of the main ones:

Community development and employment
Culture and the arts
ENVIRONMENT, conservation and sustainability
Health, medical research and longevity
Overseas aid
Social welfare and inclusion
Sport or recreation

Now START TO CONSIDER how you might direct your philanthropy:

Are you looking at CHARITY (immediate, responsive, crisis alleviation) or philanthropy (longer term, strategic, proactive, leverage, systemic, affecting policy, preventative, dealing with the root cause of a problem)?

Do you want a FOCUSSED cause or are you happy with a scattergun approach?

Do you want to support CORE ADMINISTRATION, or coalface projects such as research, policy influence, service delivery, campaigns?

Are you LOW RISK or high risk in terms of the complexity, leadership, human dynamics, and organisational strength of your target cause / organisation? Do you prefer established or start-up?

What PERSONAL RESOURCES can you and do you want to provide?

Cash flow
Sweat equity

Finally, lets look at your PERSONAL STYLE of philanthropy:

What are your STRONGEST PERSONAL MOTIVES for giving? Do you look for a quantitative personal reward or a qualitative, psychological ‘warm glow’?

Would you PREFER TO HELP 20 people in a significant way, or 2,000 people in a small way?

Is your preference for UNCONDITIONAL GIVING or would you prefer to give in a way that rewards the donee’s outcomes? Do you want to transact or transform? I have provided a link below to Ernesto Siriolli’s amusing and informative TED talk which goes some way to answering this question.

How does the PROJECTED RISK of the project affect your decision? Do you prefer tested models or higher risk start-ups, innovation and social entrepreneurship?

What DEGREE OF INVOLVEMENT do you want? Informed but removed or engaged, empowered and connected?

Do you look for IMMEDIATE RESULTS, or are you happy to see longer-term results, learning on the way?

Would you prefer to support a cause that ACCUMULATES AND preserves its capital but does not do much or one that is more cash flow oriented, raising funds on the one hand and spending on the other to make a difference?

Hopefully you now have SOME CRITERIA IN PLACE to help you decide who, how and how much, so now, bring it all together by writing a short paragraph or two setting out your philanthropic manifesto.

NOW YOU CAN SEARCH for an organisation that fits your criteria. In the UK the Charity Commission website is a good place to start. You can do a general search or an advanced search.

If you are thinking more in terms of an investment than a donation look at the CHARITABLE BANKS and investment organisations, as well as crowdfunding sites that might give you the opportunity to invest, say, in renewable energy or medical research.

Finally, lets have a quick look at THE MECHANICS OF GIVING

Arguably, the arrival of JustGiving on the internet in 2000, closely followed by Virgin Giving, transformed the way we raise money and donate money. These websites enable you to donate to charities registered with the site with a credit or debit card online, and offer people doing sponsored events the chance to build their own webpage to collect sponsorship from supporters.

Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) reported that JustGiving “was enabling charities to tap Britain’s youth with viral marketing and sophisticated processing technology for online donations.” They said that the main beneficiaries have been smaller charities, which find donation tracking and fundraising costly.

These two sites, along with a couple of others, are probably the ones we come across mostly these days. They are simple, fast, popular, not overly expensive and automate the reclaim of Gift Aid tax relief. I’ve included a comparison of the main services below.

I also want to take the opportunity of introducing you to a new internet service called Thinking of You. This works a little differently from the conventional websites and so its worth exploring. I’ve provided a downloadable comparison on the accompanying post.

I’ve also provided links on this post to a couple of thought provoking TED talks for you to look at, including Will MacAskill’s recent talk on ‘effective altruism’.I hope this post has gone some way to helping you get clarity over these sometimes difficult decisions. You should by now have a reasonable idea of who you are going to help, with what, how and who to say no to without feeling guilty about it.

Take care and go well.

Further Information and Resources


Ernesto Sirolli

A salutary story about trying to help others…

Will MacAskill

‘Effective altruism’ for a better world…

Worksheets to download

Use our worksheets to help you develop your own manifesto for contributing

Philanthropy questionnaire

Download our free philanthropy questionnaire

Online giving

Download our free comparison of sites

Shopping and giving

Download our list of giving through shopping sites


Find a charity

Use the Charity Commission’s search facility

Socially responsible investing

Learn more about SRI