March 22, 2013 6:15 pm

Why it pays to be a philanthropist

Promoting human welfare should have a purpose and not just be all about making you feel good
An illustration depicting philanthropy©James Ferguson

What does philanthropy mean to you? One dictionary describes it as an “active effort to promote human welfare”. Indeed – and I’ve been thinking recently about how and when we can strive to do just that. I’ve always argued that we should have what I call a “third dimension” to our lives, something other than work or home to which we give time and for which we are not paid. Of course, if you’re able to, then it’s important to give money too. But I do think that philanthropy should have a purpose and not just be all about making you feel good.

However, I had never had to confront what I really felt about philanthropy until last month, when I was invited to give the inaugural head’s lecture at Cheadle Hulme School in Cheshire during its first Philanthropy Week. For no fee.

Now, I don’t go round giving lectures at random schools in the northwest for no fee, however philanthropic that might be. I did this as a favour for a woman I greatly admire, Lucy Pearson, who happens to be the headteacher. Miss Pearson, as I imagine all 1,400 pupils call her, is an inspirational teacher of English, an enlightened head and has been in her time a very talented cricketer. Indeed, in this year when we are awaiting the Australian tourists with bated breath, it is worth remembering that she is only the second woman ever to take 11 wickets in a test match against Australia (in 2003).

So off to Cheadle Hulme I willingly went. Even so, I confessed to my audience, I am a reluctant philanthropist. I chair a major educational charity, I am a trustee of a cricket charity, I support a couple of others, and this year I am chairing the committee of a grand London charity dinner. Beyond that, I decline to get involved, or I would be doing nothing but charitable work. And to be honest, I think that all these charities are best served by me concentrating on my career and my business. After all, the best way to help the poor is not to become one of them.

But in 2008 I decided to start my own foundation, which helps minority ethnic graduates in the UK to win entry-level jobs. This was not a valiant attempt to make me feel warm and fuzzy. Paying off my mortgage would certainly make me feel warm and fuzzy, and the decision I took in 2008 to divert much of my dividend income into my foundation did nothing at all to help me do this. Starting with six people a year, I devised a 10-week training programme that combined key job-related skills with careers guidance and support in looking for a job. My husband and my bank manager have been very patient.

Fast forward to 2013 and this programme has grown exponentially, under a leadership team that has taken my idea and made it very much better. We are training and helping into employment several batches of young people a year. (My challenge now is to find a home for them in London. Is there anyone who would like to lend me, or rent me very cheaply, office space for 14 people? I would be very grateful. So grateful, in fact, that you can count on me speaking for free for you on a regular basis.) I would love to replicate the programme in other cities in the UK.

 

But I dispute that this is just about making me, and others like me, feel warm and fuzzy. After all, I have minority shareholders who are, albeit in a very small way, financing this too, and if they wanted to feel warm and fuzzy they could just as easily regift their dividend income to other good causes, such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. (This last is not a random mention. I filmed my TV show there the other day.) No, it is about helping people whom we hope one day will be skilled employees for our clients or even us. Philanthropy works best when it has a strong business basis.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’ is out in paperback

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