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Artillery Row

The death of charity?

The decline of religion and the fraying of our social fabric has made us meaner

Recent research from the Charity Commission shows that Britain’s richest people are becoming stingier, giving less of their wealth to charity even as their income increases. While their incomes grew by 10 per cent in real terms between 2011 and 2019 their average donation fell by 20 per cent.  Discussing this, the researchers state that “cultural scepticism has developed towards philanthropy and a sense of shared obligation has faded”.

I don’t find this surprising because I strongly suspect that large-scale, regular charitable giving is an artefact of historic Christian culture that will decline steadily if that Christian culture continues to fade. I’d expect most people donate something, sometime, but giving regularly and a substantial portion of your income takes discipline and yes, you make sacrifices. Christians often talk in terms of tithing, giving away 10 per cent of your income to good causes, and that isn’t going to be something most of the population does without a specific cultural framework that strongly emphasises it.

ONS data on the distribution of charitable giving across Britain shows that in 2022, right across the income distribution, most households give nothing regularly to charity, and the average donation (among the minority who do) is about 1-2 per cent of their total expenditure. No wonder charities are struggling so much, particularly since the Pandemic. Figures show that the proportion of the population who give to charity at all during the year has fallen from 82 per cent to 66 per cent in the last decade, and the proportion who give at least monthly is only 28 per cent. This matches long-term falls in the proportion of the population who volunteer as well, and in the membership of things like political parties.    

I suspect tithing is basically something you have to start young. I’ve tithed ever since I earned a wage and frankly don’t notice, because my donations have grown as my income has, and my expenses have always matched. But if I went from giving nothing regularly to tithing now, that would be a big hit on my budget and so on the lifestyle I was used to leading.

I think an emphasis on the generosity of the particularly plutocratic is also a mistake

I think an emphasis on the generosity of the particularly plutocratic is also a mistake. In all sorts of historic societies, the rich and powerful have dispensed largesse to those beneath them, but that is more a matter of patronage rather than charity. It is part of the feudal interaction between master and vassals. I’d rather the super-rich spend their money on good causes than on yachts and cocaine, but there is still a risk of this just becoming another way for them to exercise power and control over wider society. 

The Christian concept of charity overlaps with that wider tradition of elite distribution of resources, but is distinct in emphasising giving quietly without expecting benefit in return, such as in the parable of pharisee and the publican; in emphasising giving to those outside our own immediate community, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan; and in encouraging ordinary people to give as well, as a universal spiritual practice, such as in the story of the Widow’s Mite. This creates a much wider basis for charity, and so civic society that does not concentrate influence in the hands of the already powerful few. 

This Christian teaching had a particular role in developing what we know as civic society in the Early Modern Period. The 18th Century saw the emergence of distinct organisations dedicated to social activism and reform in Britain and across its Empire, in a way that was basically unique in the world. Even more specifically, these emerged out of non-conformist Protestant communities in Britain who, because they were entirely independent of the state, had developed a Biblical teaching that emphasised a unique mix of tithing, volunteering, grassroots organisation, and self-reliance. 

These non-conformist churches not only created their own independently financed and run communities, for the first time they also developed a crucial collection of non-violent techniques to influence politics: setting up campaigning associations, raising petitions, encouraging economic boycotts, sending out speakers to evangelise for their cause, distributing sympathetic literature, lobbying political representatives, and organising the public. Over the next centuries, these communities would be at the heart of the movements for the Abolition of Slavery, Temperance, Factory Reform, Votes for Working-Class Men and Women, and both the Liberal and Labour parties. More importantly, their model for widespread civic organisation and reform spread through the Empire and Europe right across the world, to different nations and faiths, and is still the basis for our ecosystem of charities and NGOs today.

Obviously there are also material factors that may be affecting the level of public generosity in time and money as well. But I suspect these do not explain the whole story. Yes, recent inflation has put strain on budgets, but incomes today are still far higher than historic periods when significant numbers of ordinary people would have been tithing regularly from their income as a matter of religious and cultural obligation. And yes, there is increasing distrust among many certain people directed at large, “corporate” charities, but why would this make people stop giving or volunteering entirely, rather than redirecting their donation to smaller, more local charities? I suspect rather this is a symptom of our fraying social fabric, as mega-charities become less funded and directed from their grassroots as parts of an organic civil society, they become more funded by governments and billionaires as elements of a distant governing class.

I fear that rates of charitable donation and volunteering will continue to decline

If the Christian culture of our society fades and is replaced by a multicultural society with fewer shared bonds or stories, I fear that rates of charitable donation and volunteering will continue to decline. This may in turn become self-reinforcing, if charities are no longer there to fill the social fabric, or if they only continue as astro-turf organisations funded and controlled from above. A weaker social fabric may lead people to turn inwards, resulting in fewer donating and volunteering, which will in turn isolate people from each other.

I usually try to end my articles on a positive note, but in this case it is hard to know what to say. The decline of Christianity in Britain is a long-term process that has become steadily more acute in the last thirty years. So is the increasing ethnic, religious and cultural diversity resulting from mass immigration into the UK.  There are many wonderful things about experiencing the religions and cultures of the world on your doorstep, but the combined result of these is that Britons are more divided, into more, smaller communities with less in common; and where people have less in common, they feel less solidarity and less obligation to one another outside of their own mini-community. 

One way to counteract this tendency, would be for the state to promote a shared, community-focussed vision of what it meant to be British, but instead we get an increasingly extreme, tech-enabled individualism, that rejects any binding duties towards family, community and nation; made steadily worse by a progressive elite that also refuses to even consider that there might be any downsides to multiculturalism that need to be ameliorated. This ethos is a far cry from the Christian roots of our charities and civic society, on whose moral and cultural infrastructure, like the physical infrastructure of our ageing Victorian railways and sewers, we still rely.

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