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What gives? The blurred lines between philanthropy and the state

What gives? The blurred lines between philanthropy and the state

A review of Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies.

I’ll get straight to it: if you are interested in charities, and in fundraising and philanthropy in particular, you will find this book fascinating. Public Good by Private Means is a meticulously researched, cogently argued look at the history of philanthropy in Britain. Rhodri Davies looks in particular at the often controversial interface between philanthropists and the State (from taxation through to public policy), a subject that is currently especially topical. There are lessons in here for us all – fundraisers, philanthropists, policymakers, and indeed ‘charity critics’. Indeed, the latter are not a recent phenomenon, as we learn in the book).

Davies sets about answering some important questions: Why is philanthropy important? How can we ensure that it is effective? What are the key principles of philanthropy? What arguments can be marshalled in defence of it? In doing so, he guides the reader through a detailed yet compellingly interesting potted history of giving in Britain through the centuries.

We learn about the roots of modern philanthropy after the Reformation and initially influenced by the Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how even then there were blurred lines with the emergence of state-provided welfare. We learn about the impact of industrialisation and the emergence of the concept of corporate social responsibility. And we learn how many of the fundraising practices we might consider to be modern innovations actually have their roots in the pioneering efforts of philanthropists of centuries gone by.

Philanthropists through the centuries

Peppered throughout are case studies in the form of pen portraits of philanthropists through the centuries. These include: Angela Burdett-Coutts, featuring Charles Dickens as an early philanthropic advisor(!); William Rathbone, who was advised by Florence Nightingale in his quest to establish nursing provision; Andrew Carnegie and his establishment of libraries; and a series of philanthropists with wealth derived from their family’s establishment of “the brands that built Britain”: Elizabeth Fry, Joseph Rowntree, George Cadbury, Thomas Cook, and indeed a whole ‘host’ of brewers!

The post-war emergence of the welfare state in Britain is shown to be of crucial importance in reframing the relevance of charity and philanthropy. Did the state have to step in due to voluntary sector failure? Davies concludes that such criticism is too simplistic, that no single sector can provide the panacea for society’s ills, and that philanthropy still has a crucial role to play.

Giving as political act

At a time when charities are increasingly criticised for being ‘too political’, and campaigning and advocacy are often considered dirty words, we learn from these examples in particular that for centuries major giving has been an innately political act. That’s political with a small “P” rather than party political. Philanthropists and charities have clearly wrestled for so long with the hard choice between treating the symptoms and finding a ‘cure’. And in seeking the latter, the quest has long been for social change. We learn that lobbying, campaigning and speaking truth to power are by no means modern phenomena, and that urging charities to ‘stick to their knitting’ is both fallacious and arguably pernicious.

Davies tackles weighty or potentially dry topics such as taxation, or the difficulty of balancing innovation and impact, deftly throughout, and clearly signposts the direction of his arguments, and indeed the key points of his book. I was particularly drawn to the regular “Implications for philanthropy” sections in which the author delicately pulls the thread through from each section to assess relevance for today’s fundraising and philanthropic practitioners alike.

Future of philanthropy

But it is in addressing frequent criticism of philanthropy that this book comes into its own. Not content merely with constructing a range of historically-backed rebuttals, Davies responds by constructively elucidating his eight key principles of philanthropy.

These principles underline why philanthropy still has a crucial role to play and will help those interested in giving (and those interested in helping them give) to shape their policies and practice for maximum effect.

As such, this book is a must-have for fundraising department shelves and of course for the libraries of anyone who wants to effect change through their philanthropy.


Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies is published by Alliance Publishing Trust. The 288 page paperback costs £18 or £7.01 in Kindle format.


Richard Sved has worked and volunteered in the charity sector for over 20 years. Prior to setting up his own company, 3rd Sector Mission Control, he led the fundraising function for two national charities. He is also an NCVO consultant, and was recently interim Head of Fundraising at Epilepsy Society and Education Support Partnership. Richard's key strengths lie in charity strategic planning, income generation and communications. He blogs regularly about the charity sector at

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