Britain’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron couches his current austerity government policy in the rhetoric of “The Big Society.” The idea is that as the government hacks away at the welfare state, notions of civic society will be invoked to replace Britain’s benefits safety net. Volunteerism and charitable giving will patch up the gaping wounds left by budget cuts, or so the proponents of Cameron’s Big Society would suggest.
Tomes can and have been filled about the problems underpinning Cameron’s Big Society. One issue among many is that the charitable giving of the very wealthy is an inconsistent resource. As new findings by the Chronicle of Philanthropy show, major charitable gifts in the U.S. dropped by 30 percent in 2012:
The largest gifts announced by American philanthropists in 2012 totaled nearly $5.1 billion, but $3 billion of that was from Warren Buffett’s promise in August to give stock valued at $1 billion to each of three foundations run by his children.
Without Mr. Buffett’s pledges, the biggest gifts announced in 2012 would have totaled only $2 billion — far less than 2011’s $2.6 billion.
As I noted last year on Salon, despite the ubiquitous praise heaped upon Buffett for encouraging fellow billionaires to join his pledge to give at least half of their wealth to charity, little interrogation goes into where this money goes. At the time, I cited Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, who wrote a blog post for On Philanthropy suggesting that the nature of Buffett’s Giving Pledge could spell trouble for the neediest parts of the nonprofit world:
There is no reason to believe that our billionaires will change the way they conduct their philanthropy when they begin to implement their pledges. That means that almost all of their new money will go to higher education, hospitals, medical schools, museums and arts institutions … the largest nonprofits in the sector. Few or no funds will be targeted to poor and disadvantaged constituencies, those people who need it most. Moreover, little or no money will flow to local social service agencies or to small nonprofits.
The vagaries of major charitable donations are such that their targets and the amounts of money given can vary wildly based on the individual desires of a few very wealthy givers. Which points to the risk of policy frameworks that place philanthropy at their heart, like Cameron’s Big Society .