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Coffee House Money

Groping wasn’t the worst thing going on at The Presidents Club

Once again public figures are fanning themselves with shocked surprise at something perfectly comprehensible to everyone else: men behave boorishly when drunk, sans wives, in the company of young women in short skirts paid to make themselves friendly.

Of course, what went on at the Dorchester that night is seriously not okay and it’s good news the Presidents Club is no more. But the problem wasn’t just the groping. It was the event itself, and specifically the model of philanthropy on display.

Too many rich people see charity as something peripheral to the real business of life. Inoculated by their wealth from any exposure to the demand side of what charities do, they see the supply side as a bit of fun, an opportunity to display their wealth and generosity. Like turning up at prep school on Saturday morning to cheer on their children’s sports, they know they need to be there, but they’re not really invested in the result.

What’s worse is that too many charities play into this, laying on lavish entertainment and seducing donors with feel-good shmaltz or guilt-inducing poverty porn. The late unlamented Kids Company excelled at this. The result is donors who don’t know what the charity actually does, fail to hold it to account – and miss out on the real fulfilment (and the spur to far greater generosity) that comes from real social engagement. They may get to chat up a leggy hostess, but we are all the poorer for it.

I could name a dozen exceptions to this, of course: rich people who see their wealth as a trust which they steward on behalf of society as a whole (and steward better than the government). I know philanthropists who are curing diseases, transforming schools, carrying risk for innovative new enterprises which are fixing deep-seated social problems.

They are having this impact because they take the work seriously: tracking performance, analysing data, insisting on competence in management – in a word, not tolerating the woolly cardigan tendency which afflicts so many modern charities. They act strategically not just tactically, over the long-term, on a major scale.

The link between fun and philanthropy is a strong and lucrative one. But it is ultimately (a favourite charity word) unsustainable. If we see the supply of love and care as the decoration on the cake of the economy, as something we provide from our surplus rather than a primary call on our income, we will never fix anything.

Our ancestors knew this. Indeed, I wish the new Victorianism in sexual morality which is sweeping our public culture brought with it a more Victorian attitude to charity and philanthropy. We can start by scrapping the black-tie dinner, the charity auction, and the leggy hostesses.

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