Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Charity across the nations

I took part in an interesting brainstorming meeting this morning on the subject of the charity sector in the UK and in Poland. Along with representatives of a Big Four consultancy and the head of a Polish NGO that supports charities here, we considered the differences between Charity in the two countries.

In the UK, the big picture is very clear - mainly because statistics are kept. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." In the financial year 2011-12, British citizens donated £9.3 billion to charities, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' most recent report. That's equivalent to 0.6% of the UK's GDP. This includes all donations from individuals in the form of collecting tins, direct debits and standing orders, raffle tickets, charity events, charity shop purchases and payroll donations. It does not include government support, money from the National Lottery, wills, trusts, foundations, endowments, corporate donations or investment income.

Let's take a look at one UK charity in detail - the British Heart Foundation. Income in the financial year 2012-13 was £133.3m, charitable expenditure was £120.2m (£10.1 being the cost of running the charity). Of the income, 55% came from donations and profits from the nationwide chain of 730 BHF charity shops (supported by 20,000 volunteer staff); 45% came from wills and investment income. Looking at how the BHF spent the money, over £90m is spent on research, £30m on prevention of heart disease. £120m is well over half a billion zlotys, dear reader. And this is but ONE UK charity, that ranks number 18 on the list of top 1,000 UK charities.

Between them, the big three cancer charities in the UK, Cancer Research UK, MacMillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, last year raised over £567m (over 2.8 billion zlotys, or around one-thirtieth of the Polish national health fund's annual budget). Add the smaller cancer charities, plus other one supporting research in areas such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, stroke, etc, and soon you a making a huge contribution to the overall healthcare sector.

Poland lacks such charities. The highest-profile charity is Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy - which, granted, is a once-a-year fund-raising event akin to Children in Need. The latest WOŚP (January 2013) raised 60.7m zlotys (around £12m); the latest Children in Need campaign (November 2013) raised £31m. But then Comic Relief ('Red Nose Day') in March 2013 raised £75m for charity. Poland's nominal GDP per capita may be three times lower than the UK's, but charity giving in Poland is... a mere tenth of that of the UK.

Why is this? I'm minded of the Duchess of Devonshire, answering the wife of a Texan oil millionaire how she keeps the lawns of Chatsworth House so immaculate. "Sow the grass seed, water, fertilise, mow, roll, and continue for several hundred years." The UK has  many charitable institutions that go back to Victorian times. The importance of continuity and familiarity has a great role in building those huge reserves of social trust, without which charity cannot function.

And this makes a huge difference. David Cameron might have forgotten his Big Society pledges, but let's face it, the UK really does have a Big Society already - people rich and poor, companies, foundations, institutions - that dig deep into their pockets, and volunteer their time - to help those in need. And this is happening on an immense scale across the whole of the UK.

Poland's charitable organisations tend to be micro-scale - set up by parents seeking to finance a life-saving operation for their child, or a community looking to support a local project. Some degree of consolidation will occur naturally, but leadership is needed from the top to put Poland's charity sector into an international perspective - and frame legislation accordingly - to encourage people to give less grudgingly of their money and time - and so to build a civil society built of trust.

So - the question for Poland's nation-builders - how can we build a strategic charity sector that replicates the size and effectiveness of the British one without having to wait the centuries it takes for the process to happen spontaneously?


Liz said...

Very well put. Your last question is the vital one. In Victorian times there was also a different attitude as well. Many charities were started by well-off philanthropists, as indeed happens now in the USA - perhaps the direction that Poland needs to look (not generally, but in this matter!). Furthermore, the activists behind Victorian charities were often women with energy, money and, above all, time, as well as eyes open to the needs around them. Unfortunately there are few such ladies of leisure around today.

Helena r said...

I am always amazed that in the UK so much is done by volunteers-mountain rescue,lifeboats,WRVS tea ladies in hospital,first responders to accidents,National Trust etc The UK am strikes me as a very altruistic society compared to others.

Anonymous said...

I feel your great article Charity across the nations missed out on two different but very influential institutions, the Catholic church in Poland and the Welcome Trust in the UK, there is also the culture of the extended family, which in many parts of Europe tend to pick up on those areas which in the UK are covered by the charity sector and state benefits.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Liz

Philanthropic endowments are like snowballs that have been gathering size and momentum for many decades. Communism killed off voluntary bottom-up charitable initiatives, funnelling all public life through the Party; normal civic society is only just beginning.

@ Helena r
Totally agree with you. Question is - how do you get that same spirit going in Poland? Everyone's excuse is 'we're too busy catching up with the wealthy West' or 'we're too poor to donate money or time'...

@ Anon
Wellcome Trust - Massive! £14.3 BILLION a year from that one institution alone! Thanks - worth checking out. Catholic Church - micro- rather than systemic charitable works here...