Print this article

Philanthrophy Can Thrive Even While Recession Bites

Emma Rees

28 January 2009

The onset of global recession is feeding fears that charitable donations and philanthropic activity might suffer in 2009.  The UK Charity Commission, the organisation supervising the sector, has already found that one in four charities that accept donations have seen a fall in giving in the squeeze accompanying the credit crunch. 

At the same time, a number of luxury goods firms have also become the victim of wide-reaching belt tightening, with Burberry, LVMH and Richemont all acknowledging the challenge to their business. As the wealthy restrain their spending, logically philanthropy projects would appear to follow suit.

That would be premature, however, argues Mark Evans, head of Coutts’ Family Business and Philanthropy unit. He told WealthBriefing that it is too early to tell how philanthropic giving by high net worth individuals is being affected by the current economic downturn.

“It's also too difficult to generalise. A lot depends on people's motivations for giving and the source of their donations,” Mr Evans said. “If you are a City professional who has been giving a percentage of your bonus every year to organisations with which you don't have any emotional involvement, you are likely to think differently to a family that has set up a private charitable trust to support children's cancer charities because your child died of leukaemia,” said Mr Evans.

According to Coutts, an individual’s decision on whether to tighten their philanthropic belt depends on a number of factors. These include: whether an individual is a “chequebook” or an “engaged” giver; whether they are giving out of surplus funds or because they have committed to giving a certain amount every year; whether they are giving a percentage of their company's profits in line with a corporate social responsibility policy, or a percentage of their income due to religious beliefs.

Research conducted by Scorpio Partnership on behalf of New Philanthropy Capital, recently found that 60 per cent of wealth advisors believe philanthropy will continue to grow more important over the next five years even through the current market downturn.

According to the report, the growing importance of markets like the Middle East and Russia to the wealth management industry are set to fuel the philanthropy trend and it may be 10 years before these markets reach their full wealth creation potential.

By extension, the philanthropic activity of wealthy individuals from these markets is also likely to grow and they will continue to seek philanthropy services in countries where the relevant expertise exists.

The report noted that UHNW clients are somewhat insulated from economic shocks as their capital base usually far exceeds their consumption requirement. “Where philanthropy is a priority, these clients will likely continue as donors,” said Coutts’ Mr Evans.

Mr Evans also said that individuals who give income or capital from an investment portfolio that has reduced in value are likely to adopt a different approach to those giving out of a cash deposit where the value has been preserved. “If you prefer making one-off donations, your attitude is likely to be different to if you already have committed to fund an organisation over a number of years,” he said.

Scorpio Partnership and New Philanthropy Capital’s report said that those HNW philanthropists whose wealth was generated through a liquidity event have often staged an exit from their business and therefore continue to receive capital inflows which will enable them to continue with philanthropic projects; albeit that these may be potentially reduced due to stock market performance.

Emma Turner, a director at Barclays Wealth, told WealthBriefing that there is a distinction between existing and new philanthropy business.

”Unlike with corporate giving, our clients who are already making major contributions will have established and funded their giving vehicle so there is no reason that their levels would need to decrease significantly. We may, however, see a drop in the number of new vehicle creations as wealthy individuals pause longer before committing,” said Ms Turner.

Rather than new enquiries dropping off, Coutts reports an increasing number of requests for philanthropic advice. “The increasing number of requests can partly be explained by the fact that more private and commercial bankers are introducing philanthropy into conversation with their clients as part of developing a wealth plan,” said Mr Evans.

He also sees succession planning playing an increasingly important part as more clients think twice about leaving all their wealth to their children.

“They are happy to give their children a good start in life, such as a first class education, accommodation and some money to get them going, but they do not want to take away any ambition their children might have to pursue their own careers,” said Mr Evans.

While unstructured and spontaneous giving might to some extent fall victim to the economic downturn, Coutts believes we may see some wealthy individuals actually giving more to help certain charities that suffer a shortfall as a result of other donors withdrawing their support.

While “strategic philanthropy”, where business solutions are applied to social issues, is nothing new, it is gaining recessionary momentum as those giving are keen to ensure that they get the biggest “bang for their buck” in philanthropic terms.

According to both Coutts and Barclays Wealth, individuals are increasingly concerned that their giving makes a real difference and are creating specific philanthropic strategies to this end.

Barclays Wealth notes an increased focus on knowing and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the charities clients are involved in so they can see where they may most need help, and are happy to provide time as well as money.

“What we will see are clients tightening the specification of their giving strategies with less and less incidences of their straying outside of the framework agreed. This also means there will be less 'spontaneous giving' in the coming year,” said Ms Turner. “As a consequence, clients will be more focused upon clear evidence of direct impact.”

“Ultimately, it's not about how much money people give, it's about what difference their giving makes. In addition to understanding the root causes of the issues they are supporting, they want to understand the dividing line between what government and charitable organisations are doing so that they can make informed choices,” said Mr Evans.

Coutts works closely with organisations like New Philanthropy Capital, which provides independent research on charitable sectors and charities, and the Community Foundation Network, an organisation focusing on giving at a local level.

Scorpio and New Philanthropy Capital’s research also picks up on this trend and categorises it as a movement towards a US-style approach, a trend which the firms believe will be another driver of philanthropic activity in Europe.

This is most notable in Switzerland where UHNW clients are adopting an “Anglo-Saxon” model which views philanthropy as an important part of the family’s activity, and something which should run along the same lines as their business. The Scorpio/New Philanthropy Capital report found that UHNWs expect their foundations to be run with overheads not exceeding 10-20 per cent, coupled with strong asset management performance in order to ensure that their foundations remain adequately funded for the future.

The recession aside, there is an increasing sense among the wealthy that as they cannot take their assets with them and vast inheritances might spoil their children, “giving while living” may be the most rewarding option. This seems set to fuel the demand for philanthropy services by the wealthy, even through the economic downturn.