The Everyman Philanthropist

By most people’s standards I’m a terrible businesswoman. I’ve just taken on a project that will take one day a week of my time and will definitely lose me money. What’s more, I gave more than £50,000 to charity last year and won’t be getting a penny of tax rebate on the gifts I made.

I’ve made these choices because I consider myself a philanthropist. And while I’m not wealthy, what I can give, as a self-employed person, is time. And like many people in this country that’s how I make the majority of my donations to the charities I support.

As a fundraiser and former charity Chief Executive, I know that cash gifts are critical, but I’m conscious that they aren’t the only way of being philanthropic, and right now encouraging other ways of becoming involved in cultural charities is key to growing our relatively limited arts voluntary giving base.

The definition of a philanthropist is ‘someone who donates their time, money, and/or reputation to charitable causes’. I’m simply unusual in my approach in that I send the charities to which I donate my time a pro bono invoice, so that they can quantify the value of my gift. By putting my donation through their accounts, the charity not only places a real value on the gift, they’re also able to demonstrate a growing income base and attract other supporters.

In a world where major corporations seek to pay as little tax as they can, the philosophy I established when I become fully self-employed four years ago may seem a little quaint, but I wanted to give back to the sector which I’m passionate about and which sustains me. I’ve been extremely fortunate in the clients I’ve worked with and I’m now advising on my tenth capital campaign, having worked with organisations as prestigious as The Old Vic, Garsington Opera, DanceEast and the new National Centre for Writing in Norwich. My ever growing list of pro bono clients, including The Gate, The Yard and the Mosaic Rooms, means that my philosophy seems increasingly relevant in challenging economic times when we all need to be ever more creative about how to generate more income.

I rarely speak at conferences, but when I was asked to be a keynote speaker on the subject of a holistic approach to philanthropy at the inaugural Spektrix Conference recently, I was pleased to do so, knowing that they champion institutions which often find it more challenging to attract financial support. As I sat listening to the excellent speakers from other disciplines, I noted each in turn saying that in order to be successful their area needed to be at the heart of the organisation and I reflected on the challenge for cultural bodies in building a staff in which each is cognisant of the workings of the organisation as a whole. But it also gave me further pause for thought. Are we still treating cultural organisations in the abstract, as self-contained systems outside of society, thinking primarily of what benefits us and overlooking the broader social context our donors operate within, and does that mean we’re missing opportunities to engage a wider donor base in our work?

The dichotomous tension between art and engagement that has raged in the arts for more than ten years, while clearly driven by pressure on funding, has always seemed something of a fallacy to me. Art is always its own priority and end; but art that doesn’t engage with society is rarely of quality, so in order to produce great art we need to participate in life.

My first formal job in the arts, almost 20 years ago, was Head of Trust Fundraising at the National Theatre. When I arrived at the NT I was disappointed to learn that some staff had decided not to speak to me and my newly recruited colleagues – fundraisers were a necessary evil, to be tolerated and not indulged. It was with wry amusement that I noted the warm welcome I received when I returned a couple of years ago to work on the strategy for the NT Future Campaign. Fundraising was now truly part of the organisation.

I’m very proud of the donor base we established at the NT and while the income from trusts and foundations has doubled in the years since I left, I always look in the back of the programme whenever I attend a show to check the list of donors. It’s shocking that the list has barely changed in 20 years.

Membership schemes, along with the quality of the cultural offer and enhanced public engagement programmes, have of course transformed individual giving in recent years, but the committed on-going philanthropy of trusts and foundations remains slow to grow. Many of us puzzle over how we can enhance philanthropy in this country and address the continuing challenge of developing a broader understanding of the arts as charitable and worthy of support. I’m pleased that Achates Philanthropy will be working with BOP Consulting on the review of Arts Council England’s Catalyst programme, because I believe this is a challenge we urgently need to face. Donor schemes are undoubtedly important, but it seems to me that a focus on economic efficiency alone means that we sometimes overlook the opportunity to engage people in other ways and to encourage more people into giving. Volunteering and pro bono working are gateway drugs to philanthropy and in a sector which is commonly misunderstood in terms of its charitable role, I’m keen to explore how we can bridge that gap.

That’s why I’ve taken on Six Brixton as a temporary cultural centre for the next 18 months under the guise of my cultural projects company, Rien Qui Bouge. A former meals-on-wheels kitchen, Six Brixton is a ‘meanwhile space’ within the redevelopment of Somerleyton Road. It’s the largest community led development in the UK and a Cabinet Office project. The inspirational development is led by Lambeth Council in partnership with the community group Brixton Green and Ovalhouse theatre, who will relocate to the site.

A light, bright rehearsal space, the size of a tennis court, with room for offices for community groups, as well as a former walk-in freezer of black box size, has quickly been converted with limited funds and the energy of many volunteers, into a space we can offer to eminent cultural organisations and community groups alike, for a fee that simply covers the cost of utilities. The aim of this brief, bright experiment is to create a cultural centre curated not by me, but by the community. By taking away the barriers of finance and establishing a link to a hard-to-reach area, suddenly many things become possible and projects from organisations as eclectic as ENO, The Old Vic, Mono Box, Corali and Figs in Wigs are being explored. One of the wonderful things that’s already happened is that I’ve discovered what so many people I know in one capacity, also do with their lives, as they tell me about projects they work on privately and I realise that I’m surrounded by philanthropists, people giving their time to the things they feel passionately about.

But let’s be frank, this is always philanthropy and not altruism, at least not in it’s purest sense. All of us undertake these projects because it’s what we want to do – there’s always a reward, even if it’s just that warm feeling inside. For me, there are many motivations for taking on Six Brixton, not least among them is knowing that I’m going to learn a great deal from this project. Is there a possibility to replicate this kind of project through a wider empty space programme, where landlords could have formal recognition of in-kind support? Could there be a scheme to establish community liaison points so that cultural organisations can more easily work in hard-to-reach areas? What does it mean for an emerging artist to have the community as a patron, how will that change their practice and development? I’m sure that there are many more questions I haven’t even thought of yet and I’m looking forward to finding out what they are and to developing my understanding of how we can perhaps become not just a nation of volunteers, but of philanthropists.

Caroline McCormick  |  June 2014