There is great focus at the moment on the role of cities. The slow decline of many urban areas across the UK has long been lamented as their traditional sustaining industries have disappeared and they struggle to find new identities. This has been exacerbated by the continuing North-South divide that is heavily skewed economically towards London and the South-East. Many are considering what can be done to reverse these trends and make our cities fit for the future.
Philanthropy has been notably absent from this discussion. Many of our urban areas have a rich history of philanthropy that played a vital role in their growth and success. However, as economic fortunes have declined the culture of civic giving has also faded. Although there are still pockets of innovation and inspiration in many places, they are disparate and not connected by a clear narrative about the role that philanthropy can play in the context of our towns and cities.
CAF’s new Giving for the City project aims to address this gap, and to help put philanthropy back at the heart of the debate. We are not harking back to some mythical Victorian golden age, but considering how we can develop a 21st century vision for civic philanthropy to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future. Our latest report, Giving a Sense of Place, outlines what such a vision might look like and what central and local government, elected mayors, charities and others can do to make it a reality.
One of the key themes that emerge in our report is the importance of data. An obvious drawback of philanthropy is that it is based on individual voluntary choices; and as such is unevenly distributed and not always directed in the most effective ways. This cannot be totally overcome without intervening in the right of donors to make voluntary choices, which would undermine the sense of agency that is so vital to philanthropy. However, data can make philanthropic decisions more informed. By developing the evidence base on local needs and priorities within an area, donors can understand where their money would be most effectively deployed and tailor their giving accordingly if they so choose.
The work of organisations like 360Giving in promoting an open data approach among philanthropic funders is a vital piece of this puzzle. And we need to go further, and work with the public and private sectors to ensure they also open up their data so that we can build a truly detailed picture of our local areas. We should also look at new models for collecting data in the first place: for instance the Vital Signs approach being pioneered by a growing number of UK community foundations is a powerful example of a bottom-up approach to understanding local needs and priorities.
There are many key elements to developing a culture of civic philanthropy, in addition to an increased focus on data, which we explore in our report. And there is a definite sense that this is a good moment to be talking about this topic. There is growing interest in place-based approaches within the philanthropic sector, and also new opportunities to influence as a result of the ongoing moves toward greater devolution of political power – including the election of directly-elected mayors in a number of areas for the first time. The combination of these factors means that we have a real opportunity to develop a new golden age of giving within our towns and cities. We should grasp that opportunity.
City Bridge Trust & CAF will be holding an event looking at the role of philanthropy in building London’s civic identity on 24 October 2017. Register your place here.