Return to Philanthropy?

New Left Project

October 31, 2012

by Michael Barker


Philanthropy, we are told, is to replace the welfare state: instead of attempting to redistribute wealth via taxation and democratic planning, austerity politicians are in the process of dispatching with what they view as an irritating relic of working class history. In its place we are informed that we should rely upon the charity of the greediest and most exploitative subset of society, our country’s leading capitalists. A group of individuals whose psychological temperament is better described as psychopathic rather than altruistic.[1]

While many corporate executives may well have numerous commendable personal traits, their commitment to pursuing their own class interests — at the expense of the mass of humanity — necessarily means that they must master the means to mask their illegitimate power and actively encourage a sense of futility amongst the governed. The creation of non-profit corporations, otherwise known as philanthropic foundations, thereby serves a critical function for powerful elites:letting them distance themselves from their psychopathic for-profit offspring, and allowing capitalists to recast themselves as good Samaritans striving to work for the common good.

Under the ideological onslaught of the “Big Society”, philanthropy is now a big and highly profitable business in itself. Tens of thousands of individuals are employed in this booming industry whose very growth is inversely related to the cutting of much-needed public services. Yet this philanthropic sector is hardly new, and can trace its institutional history to the old charity organisations of the nineteenth century.

In fact to this day, the Charity Organization Societies that were initially formed in 1869 continue to be used as a misleading “institutional model to illustrate the alleged advantages of voluntarism over state benefits.”[2] This is a model of manipulation that was quickly exported to the United States. In time these charity societies found their replacement through the institutionalisation of philanthropy in the form of dedicated foundations, which were quickly used as a weapon of capitalist reform against a militant and increasingly socialist working class.[3]

For the past several decades the pro-capitalist ideology guiding the foundation-world has been gaining the ears of the rich and powerful in the UK, and its historical lessons are currently being reintegrated into the British ruling classes’ war against life. Groups at the forefront of this educative endeavour are numerous, but perhaps the most significant is the Association of Charitable Foundations, which was set up in 1989 — with grants given by their members amounting to £1.2 billion in 2005 alone.

A former senior executive at private equity company 3i plc, John Kingston, is the current chairman of the Association of Charitable Foundations, a position of authority he bolsters through serving as a board member of David Cameron’s recently launched Big Society Capital. Kingston is supported at the Association by his vice chair, Sara Llewellin, who is the chief executive of the leading liberal foundation — ostensibly “committed to funding and encouraging the promotion of social justice” — the “Big Society”

With the Association of Charitable Foundations being of fairly recent origin, an apt forerunner in the UK sis the Charities Aid Foundation. This Foundation was was formed in 1924 as the Charities Department of the National Council of Social Service, in order to encourage efficiency in charitable giving. In 1959, the Charities Department changed its name to become what is now known as the Charities Aid Fund (CAF); while the National Council of Social Service itself is now called the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

In late 2010, Dominic Casserley, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, became CAF’s chairman, only retiring from his position as the chairman of the major British charity Action on Addiction in 2012. Casserley’s predecessor at CAF was the former chief executive at the London-based investment bank SG Warburg & Company, Lord Cairns; while CAF’s current chief executive is John Low, an individual who in recent months stepped down from his position as the chairman of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) — the professional body for the third sector’s usually overpaid chief executives. Low also serves alongside the aforementioned Sara Llewellin on the board of trustees of Charity Bank, an organisation which helps financial investors “facilitate real social change.” The type of social change being facilitated equates with activities that enable and empower the ongoing priviatisation of public services, something that ACEVO chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb is certainly familiar with, given his recently revealed key role in the ongoing privatisation of the NHS.

The close relationship between capitalist enemies of public services and the promoters of voluntary work should come as no surprise. And a key addition to the ruling classes’ armory in their longstanding efforts to undermine the welfare provisions of the state is Dartington Hall Trust’s School for Social Entrepreneurs. This “School” was founded in 1997 by Michael Young, a former Director of the pro-capitalist Political and Economic Planning think tank, who is best known as being the man who coined the phrase “social entrepreneur.”[4] Funding for this project came from HSBC Holdings plc, the National Lottery Charities Board and the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust.

The School for Social Entrepreneurs’ founding chairman was the late James Cornford (1935-2011), who just prior to his death acted as the chair of Dartington Hall Trust. Having been a policy wonk for the ruling class for decades, Cornford previously serving as the first Director (1989-94) of the New Labour think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research — the very think tank that helped provide the intellectual fodder to allow the Labour Party to dispatch its working-class roots. Another notable trustee of the School for Social Entrepreneurs is Vaughan Lindsay, who became the CEO of Dartington Hall Trust in 2004 after leaving an illustrious career in the corporate world, where he had most recently worked for healthcare privatizer McKinsey & Company.

Notably the current chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research is James Purnell, who recently served as a board member of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. Blue Labour operative Purnell presently acts as a senior advisor for the world’s leading advisor on business strategy, Boston Consulting Group, and is a trustee of Citizens UK — a group whose “goal is to increase the power of communities to participate in public life.” Dismantling the welfare state being one way sure fire way in which to force increased public participation in public life.

Given the insidious way in which elite philanthropy works to defang and delimit the processes of beneficial social change, it is vital that progressives begin seriously to tackle the vexing questions surrounding the mostly unmentioned power of philanthropy, most especially that of liberal elites. Thankfully in the past few years this dialogue has gained much needed support from the publication of two books, Joan Roelofs’ Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (2003), and INCITE!’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (2007). However, the most important work still needs to be done: together we need to launch a popular debate about the corrosive influence of foundations on progressive social change, and then begin to propose and support alternative (sustainable) solutions to funding progressive groups all over the world.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK and blogs at

For more New Left Project coverage of the Big Society project, see Emma Dowling’s series here, here and here.


[1] Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Free Press, 2004).

[2] Robert Humphreys, Poor Relief and Charity, 1869-1945: the London Charity Organization Society (Palgrave, 2001).

[3] Sheila Slaughter and Edward Silva, “Looking backwards: how foundations formulated ideology in the Progressive Period,” in Robert Arnove, (ed.), Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston, 1980).

[4] Asa Briggs, Michael Young: Social Entrepreneur (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p.328.