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Perspective on Giving - Lynn Strongin Dodds

Lynn Strongin Dodds
Lynn Strongin Dodds

Why I Give

The swathing government cutbacks have focused the attention on drivers of giving and who will fill the gap when the safety net is pulled tighter. As an American who has lived in London for over 20 years, I am looking at these trends with great interest to see whether the UK will follow the US model. It has also made me look at my own motivations for giving and which charities interest me the most.

My husband Simon and I first got involved with the Community Foundation about three years ago through Simon’s employer Deutsche Bank. What attracted both of us was the grassroots nature of the charities. In the past we had and still do give to the larger more established such as Amnesty International as well as medical organisations such as Teenage Cancer Trust, British Heart Foundation and the British Diabetic Association. The former was through my interest in human rights and the latter was often linked to someone who had the disease in the hope that our contribution would help find a cure or a treatment.

In fact, according to a recent report on giving in the UK by the Charities Aid Foundation, medical, children and overseas charities were the most popular. The main difference with LCF is that a relatively small donation can go a long way and we can also actually see where the money is going and meet the people who are involved. For example, we have visited the three main charities we are involved with – Street Talk, which helps street walkers, Crossroads, which provides counselling for children and adults in Tower Hamlets and Sparkplug, which uses mechanics and motorcycles to engage young men. We have been able to see firsthand the work they are doing, what they are trying to achieve and who will be the beneficiaries.

Although they are very different the common thread is tenacity and the goal of building confidence and hope. They also reach out to groups of society who feel disenfranchised and need support but are not always proactive in looking for it.

The other main attraction for us is that the work is being done locally or at least in parts of London that I know. Often a local community is lost in the bigger picture of national organisations and disaster funds. While there is a place for fundraising on a larger scale, smaller groups can get lost in the picture. Also, perhaps because I have lived here so long I rather not have a chat with a fundraiser on the street. The other reason is that I am originally from Brooklyn and while it is a big city in its own right, the sense of community has always been strong. This is in part because of the immigrant populations and the support systems they built for each other. It is also to due to the government playing a much smaller role in the US and forcing individuals to find their own solutions.

As a result and for better or worse, this has produced a different culture of philanthropy in the US. It starts when you are young and learn about benefactors such as the self-made steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who in the early 1900s gave away the equivalent of ­billions to fund 3,000 public libraries, a vast array of research institutes, colleges and concert halls, and even an estimated 7,000 church organs. ‘Surplus wealth,’ Carnegie remarked, ‘is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.’

Fast forward to today and while it is true many of the super rich in the US like to have their names on hospital wings and foundations, they not only give but also encourage others to follow in their in their footsteps. About 57 of America’s richest people have promised to give away at least 50 per cent of their assets while by contrast, even though Britain is home to 40 billionaires, just one of them — Lord Sainsbury — has given away enough to qualify for signing Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, which binds American billionaires to hand over most of their personal fortunes to charity.

The gap in the US is the next rung down where studies have shown that upper income Americans are not as generous as those on lower incomes. Some academics call it the compassion deficit or a lack of identification with those in need. This may explain in part why a 2007 report from the Centre on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that only a small percentage of charitable giving by those in this higher income bracket was mostly being directed at cultural institutions or their alma maters.  

As to why I give, it is the cliché reason of wanting to give back. Simon is from a working class family in London and I am from a middle class background from New York. We both had grandparents who escaped prosecution and worked extremely hard so that our parents and in turn us could have much better lives. It is the classic immigrant story with appreciation of things past and a desire to make things better in whatever way we can. However, the support of new friends and local organisations gave my grandparents the sense of community and belonging although they never forgot what they lost. LCF appeals to me because they are reaching out into those communities and trying to help people deal with and hopefully improve their situations.

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“As to why I give, it is the cliché reason of wanting to give back… LCF appeals to me because they are reaching out into those communities and trying to help people deal with and hopefully improve their situations.”

Lynn Strongin Dodds

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