A Great British History of Philanthropy 

Philanthropy has a long and storied history in the UK, and it has played an integral role in shaping the society that we live in today. Modern philanthropy can be traced back to the mid-1500s when it became more about the secular concerns of poverty, inequality and social issues as opposed to the religious notion of almsgiving which came before that. This shift was important; philanthropy became less about saving your immortal soul through charity work and more about genuinely and selflessly wanting to help other people. Let’s explore.

The 1500s

Philanthropy, as it is recognised today in Britain, arguably started with Henry VIII. When he initiated the split from the catholic church in Rome and formed the church of England, the resulting schism led to a reformation in England. A lot of the assets previously belonging to the catholic church were reclaimed by the crown. New teachings began to emerge about poverty, and this then paved the way for the secular notion of giving that had nothing to do with one’s immortal soul and focussed instead on making a difference. A lot of wills can be found from this time period which documents the people’s desire to leave gifts behind to charities. 

The 1600s

The Poor Law Legislation was first introduced by the Tudors in an effort to create a system for government-mandated welfare. Elizabeth I then introduced a law that was aimed at holding charitable trusts more accountable. The statute of charitable uses did not offer a legal definition of ‘charity’ as such, but it did provide examples of charitable acts. Over time, these examples then did come to be seen as the legal definition of charity. This definition formed the legal basis of UK charity law, a law which came to influence a number of other countries too.

The 1700s

During this time period, the public was growing increasingly concerned about the increasing power of the clergy through misused gifts left behind in people’s wills. The statute of Mortmain was designed to address those concerns. It outlines conditions that must be met in order for a gift of land or money to purchase land in the name of charity to be accepted. Because these conditions were hard to meet honestly, a lot of charitable trusts began to argue that the gifts themselves were not acts of charity and, therefore, the gifts were legitimate. But, on the other hand, the judiciary was attempting to argue the opposite, that these gifts were charitable and therefore subject to the conditions. This is because they wanted the conditions to be unfulfilled so that the gifts could then pass to the heirs rather than end up in the hands of the church or the charitable trusts.

Towards the end of this century, the idea of associated philanthropy began to emerge. Originally, philanthropy had been an interaction between individuals: the individuals that have the money and those that need it. This is because almsgiving usually took place within a small community where everyone knew each other. However, the world of business was being revolutionised during this time which meant that philanthropists could come together to combine their efforts and pool donations by forming organisations and clubs. A lot of hospitals were built as a result of this new form of philanthropy.

The 1800s

In the early 1800s, the census took place. It offered the first comprehensive picture of society. It illustrated a number of societal problems like infant mortality rates, poverty, and deprivation within the elderly. As more people became aware of the sheer scale of these problems, it became clear that intervention was necessary. Meanwhile, the industrial boom continued, which provided the wealthy with an opportunity to give back. This era birthed a number of businessmen and women who went on to philanthropic pursuits; in fact, at the time, they became household names. For example, Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts worked to address the poverty that was rife in the slums of London. George Peabody created affordable housing structures for the working class. Finally, George Cadbury worked to overhaul employment practices to put the worker first, and he also practised and promoted his pacifist beliefs too.

The 1900s

By the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, the recognition of the need for state intervention had increased dramatically. The lack of government help led to a lot of people proclaiming philanthropy as a failure. This is because it often falls to individuals to help instead of the government. Despite the growing dissent, liberal governments continued to be positive about the possibilities that philanthropy and charities offered. They also began to lay the groundwork for welfare services and state action.

As this concept picked up momentum, more societal changes began to be made. Most notably, the introduction of the NHS in 1948. This really marks the beginning of the modern welfare state. Philanthropy did go a little stagnant following this. There were a few growing pains that needed addressing. In truth, there were those that believed philanthropy had had its day because things that were traditionally the responsibility of charities were now being cared for by the government.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a surge in interest in politics and human rights issues. This can be seen in the women’s lib movement and the protests against nuclear proliferation, and the anti-war protests. Philanthropy then took on a new role as a result of this because the value of campaigning and advocacy came to the fore. As a result, philanthropic organisations began to spring up designed to fulfil this need. 

Finally, from the 1980s onwards, a new way of giving emerged that utilised marketing initiatives to appeal to the mass market. For example, major TV fundraising appeals were created like Live Aid, Children in Need or Comic Relief. They prompted huge donations because they brought the idea of charity directly into people’s homes, making it more accessible and frankly easier for people to indulge their philanthropic tendencies. In the 1990s, Gift Aid was introduced, which acted as a tax incentive for cash donations signalling government support for giving. Finally, as technology has progressed, there are now more ways than ever before for charities to reach their audience and for those people to donate or support their favourite causes.

How to be a Philanthropist Today

There are a number of ways that you can become a philanthropist today. All you need to do is find a cause that you believe in and support it. There are a lot of worthy causes out there that deserve your support. You simply need to do your research to find a cause that you want to support. It is also worth doing your research to see if you can find any other philanthropists whose charitable works speak to you. For example, you could choose a British person like Sir Tom Hunter, who has given away almost a billion pounds, or you could choose an international figure like Beny Steinmetz, who has done a lot of good through his foundation the Agnes & Beny Steinmetz Foundation.

In Conclusion

Great Britain has a long history of giving back, as do most God-fearing countries, although modern philanthropy has less to do with religion and more to do with a genuine desire to help others. While there are now forms of government intervention that could be considered philanthropy, it still often comes down to an individual to help.

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