Let’s promote a culture of private giving here in Ireland

Ireland’s wealthy lag behind their international counterparts when it comes to philanthropy.

Giving is a universal value across cultures, religions and time. Philanthropy in Greek means the love of humankind, first described in the fifth century BC. In the present era of ‘big philanthropy’, kick-started by Chuck Feeney, who later inspired Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the act of giving seems to define an ideological faultline.

Many simply celebrate voluntary acts of human generosity. But others question the motives – and the legitimacy even – of the super-rich who divert much or all of their wealth to positive social change.

So the divergent responses to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s remarkable pledge to give away $45 billion or 99% of their wealth during their lifetimes were familiar.

20-Mark-Zuckerberg-and-wife

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative resembles in scale and ambition The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The actual details of what they plan to do are scant at this stage. An SEC filing from Facebook stated that Zuckerberg (who actually controls the shares) aims to “further the mission of advancing human potential and promoting equality by means of philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good”.

The number involved is eye-catching, and the funds that will flow over the next several decades have enormous potential to catalyze positive change in a whole range of areas. But it also represents a drop in the ocean in terms of global spending on aid by governments, which reached $135 billion in 2014, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The Irish Aid budget alone is almost on a par with what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative plans to spend – they will sell up to $1 billion of Facebook stock per year. Irish Aid will have €640 million at its disposal next year.

Is there an Irish Zuckerberg or Chan?

In terms of private giving, Ireland’s wealthiest give away less than their counterparts in other countries. The wealthiest 400 earners in Ireland account for about 10% of tax deducted giving. In Germany or UK, this sits closer to 30%. Nor are they giving through the companies they own.

British firms give on average 12 times what their Irish counterparts give. At the UK rate per head of population, Ireland should have over 600 charitable trusts & foundations – but we have just 38. So there is considerable potential to grow our giving culture in Ireland.

But there are honourable exceptions worthy of celebration – Irish individuals, families, and companies that give consistently and generously, such as Maurice Healy’s Healy Group, Declan Ryan’s ONE Foundation, and NTRplc’s NTR Foundation.

Ryan’s ONE Foundation quietly gave away €85 million over ten years, 90% of it to Irish causes such as Headstrong, Foroige and the Irish Refugee Council. It focused in on key themes, setting goals to achieve over ten years, such as improving mental health outcomes for young people and making immigrant rights real.

NTR Foundation consistently funds projects that address the challenges of climate change. The Healy Group embeds social entrepreneurs like Anam Cara’s Sharon Vard in its offices and supports them with a percentage of profits each year. These are not household names who make loud public claims. Each focuses on clear social or environmental impact to move the needle on climate change, mental health, or social entrepreneurship for example.

Of course, philanthropy is not the exclusive preserve of the super wealthy. Private giving—of time and/or resources—for public good is a normal, everyday activity that occurs the world over. Every high-income OECD member state uses tax incentives to encourage its citizens to give to good causes. There is a common misconception that this involves a 100% tax write-off. In Ireland a donation of €1,000 to a registered charity costs the donor between €700 and €1,000 depending on their tax status. Since 2013, much of the tax benefits flow to the charity recipient, not to the donor. The funds that ordinary Irish men and women choose to give are vital income for charities and non-governmental organizations that are doing important work.

This Government has chosen to stimulate philanthropy and giving through several initiatives, including the 1% Difference Campaign, and starting Social Innovation Fund Ireland.

Launching in 2016, Social Innovation Fund Ireland, invites individuals, companies and families to give, creating a grant fund to find and back our best social innovations, helping them to grow, and spreading their solutions to key social issues all around Ireland. For each €1 donated, it is matched by €1 from Government.

The 1% Difference Campaign, co-funded by Government and philanthropic donors, asks all of us to give 1% of our time and / or income to a cause we care about. It challenges us all to figure out what that 1% would be, and to act.

Philanthropic organizations, like everyone else, do not get everything right all the time. Nor do governments, companies or non-governmental organizations, for that matter. Investment, which is the core task of all of these entities, regardless of the scale at which they operate, involves risk. Investing smartly can help to minimise that risk and to achieve good outcomes.

So while celebrating the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and wishing it every success, I also hope that they choose to allocate their resources wisely and transparently—both to achieve positive change and to demonstrate the power of philanthropy as an addition to, but not a replacement for, public spending for social benefit.

Deirdre Mortell is CEO of Social Innovation Fund Ireland. 

Sunday Business Post, 6 December 2015.