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In Defence of Philanthropy, Author Beth Breeze

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

Beth Breeze joins Purposely Podcast to discuss the launch of her book ‘In Defence of Philanthropy’. She is passionate about giving and fundraising and has championed adding academic rigour to the discipline, shining a light on the positive elements of philanthropy.

Beth worked as a fundraiser and charity manager for a decade before founding the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent in 2008 where she now leads a team conducting research and teaching courses on philanthropy and fundraising, including an innovative MA Philanthropic Studies.

Beth has written and edited five books, including ‘The New Fundraisers: who organises charitable giving in contemporary society?’ (2017), which won the AFP Skystone Research Partners book prize. Her latest book ‘In Defence of Philanthropy’ offers a robust response, based on both theory and extensive evidence, to the critiques against big giving. She has also written a wide range of research reports including ten editions of the annual ‘Coutts Million Pound Donors Report’.

How did you get into fundraising and the charity sector?

‘When I left university, all I knew is that I wanted to be useful. I didn't come from a particularly privileged background, so I didn't have a huge sense of what kind of jobs were out there. I only knew about social work and teaching and they're great jobs, but I didn't really think I had the personality or characteristics to do those sorts of roles. Instead, I looked at the charity sector because that seemed another obvious place where you can do good. My first job was as a fundraising officer in a youth homelessness charity called the ‘Cardinal Hume Centre’ in London and I became a fundraising officer rather than any other job because frankly, there's more opportunities in fundraising. I loved it from day one and I loved the way you could bring together a good organization that needs resources with generous people who have got resources with people who are good people who have got resources, you matchmake them together and the magic happens.’

How do you approach writing?

‘I have two strategies, the first is that I lied to myself a lot and I’d sit down at 10 o'clock at night and I would say to myself that I'm just going to do half an hour and of course what happens is you start writing and you get into it. The hardest bit is starting but once you start, you're glad you did it. Strategy number two is mint chocolates. I am an absolute sucker for dark mint chocolate, and I have boxes of them in my office and whenever my energy starts to flag I just open another box of chocolates then I can keep going for another hour.’

What motivated you to write this book?

‘It definitely feels like there are more critics than there are fans of philanthropy, it may just be that the fans are quieter. Broadly speaking I believe philanthropy is a good thing and that the criticism over-states the problems and under-states - or completely overlooks - philanthropy's positive role in society. To a large extent I think that philanthropy has got caught in the crossfire of other debates about excessive wealth, about under taxation and about inequality. I'm signed up to all those points of view and I would rather live in a more equal society where we pay higher tax, nobody dodges tax and we have well-funded quality public services, that is the kind of society I want to live in. There is still a role for philanthropy and people still want to do things for each other that go beyond what they do as a taxpayer and as a consumer. There are many people and many big donors I've interviewed over the years that are very generous and they also believing in paying tax and would happily pay more tax.’

So is Philanthropy mostly good?

We don't have the data on how much is good, indifferent or bad philanthropy. My argument is quite simple that it can be good and there are people who are alive today who would not be alive today if it wasn't philanthropy funding vaccines and global health. If you say that all philanthropy is bad and is about power and all philanthropy is an elite charade funding fake change then the onus is on you to prove that all of it is problematic. My argument is much easier to prove: that philanthropy can be - and often is - a force for good. My book is full of examples of people who've given sums of money and achieved change, which most people would agree is a good thing. Philanthropy is a social act and like any social act you can do it badly and philanthropy is fallible because people are fallible.

Beth has served as trustee for the Cardinal Hume Centre for young homeless people, as a commissioner on the Commission for the Donor Experience, as publications editor of Philanthropy UK, as a member of the President's advisory council at NCVO; as a member of the Advisory Group of the Charity Tax Commission; and is currently a member of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute Research Committee, Lilly School of Philanthropy, Indiana University, USA.


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