Cover Story: Philanthropy or bust

Raising the dead: Will philanthropy buy all our tomorrows?

Housing associations are being urged to hark back to their roots and encourage greater philanthropic involvement, but is the social good best served by appealing to the vanity and social conscience of a wealthy elite?

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, November 2013

PITY Sir Titus Salt. When the two thinktanks NPC and the Smith Institute teamed up with Peabody to publish a collection of essays extolling the virtues of philanthropic largesse (see below), the 19th Century textile baron just didn’t get a look in.

In a way, maybe that’s fitting; unlike George Cadbury, George Peabody, Joseph Rowntree, and the other philanthropists mentioned in the collection, Salt’s legacy is more or less as extinct as the man himself.

In a sense, it makes him yesterday’s man; in another it makes him a tidy encapsulation of the contradictory complexities of philanthropy, since his legacy, unlike those of his peers, hasn’t evolved beyond the precepts (and quite possibly the prejudices) of its progenitor.

Salt, a Methodist by religion, Liberal by politics, was an industrialist, social reformer, and politician appalled at the conditions created by thriving but uncaring industry. It was an environment many of his more illustrious peers in the pantheon of philanthropy would have recognised.

Back then Bradford in West Yorkshire put the ‘Hell’ into ‘dark and satanic mills’. Workers lived hard lives in squalid conditions: they were overworked, poorly paid, ill fed, lacked sanitation, and were badly housed. The city was rife with disease, filthy and polluted with toxic chimney exhausts; the average life expectancy of industrial workers was a lowly 18. This was a business engine where – let’s not be coy about this – people were worked to death for the refinement of a burgeoning middle class.

Salt, to his credit, was appalled by the conditions and determined to make a difference. The bearded patriarch took his people to a green and pleasant land – Shipley – where he built his new mill complex, and founded the model village of Saltaire. For the workers, living in decent homes, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Yorkshire landscape, this was almost literally a breath of fresh air, and must have seemed tantamount to paradise.

But here’s the thing. Salt possessed paternalistic impulses that bordered on the totalitarian. Certainly, as modern parlance would put it, the residents of his village lacked the kind of civil liberties and democratic rights we take – perhaps too much – for granted. Salt was very much the Lord of the Manor – for his workers’ own good. In this, he was no great exception within the philanthropic ranks.

History rightly honours the humanitarian efforts of the ‘great philanthropists’, but as the housing sector is encouraged to renew its relationship with this modern manifestation of noblesse oblige, should not the authoritarian side be acknowledged too? Forewarned is forearmed, one might say. To its credit, NPC et al’s essayists don’t avoid the darker side but they don’t exactly dwell on it either.

“[T]hese very well intentioned initiatives were characterised by what we would now regard as paternalistic supervision,” said architect Theresa Lloyd in her essay. “The lives of [Octavia] Hill’s tenants were monitored very closely by the weekly rent collectors; a similar approach operated at the Peabody Trust, where there were rules such as a night-time curfew.”

A curfew! It’s almost enough to make a man spit on the carpet; Lloyd goes on to further reveal how the lives of tenants could be micromanaged to a point bordering on the ridiculous – being evicted for not growing the right species of plant in the garden, for instance.

Photo courtesy: Tim Green
Salt, himself, had rules for residents/employees, including setting limits on freedom of assembly – no gatherings of more than eight people – and even stipulating how often “inmates” should wash. Oh, and no hanging out washing in the village either.

Some of this seems incredibly petty today, but the impulse to smile at the idiosyncrasies of 19th Century philanthropy must surely fade when we recall the power these men had over the lives of ordinary working people – on a whim they were able to deprive someone not only of their job but a decent home. The threat of destitution is a powerful tool for compliance – all the more so if you consider the quality of the homes and conditions Salt et al provided, compared to the general norm of slum housing.

Better living conditions for their workers generally meant greater productivity, which was all well and good, but there were other concerns to contend with – and that was the threat of social unrest and even insurrection. The era of classical philanthropy was an age rattled by protracted struggles to curtail the near-absolute power the industrialists had over the lives of millions of people. Heady days, indeed, as those millions reached out for economic, political and civil rights. In that sense, philanthropy can be seen as a shrewd move; a timely investment in the business community’s sense of self preservation, you might say.

But this is just history, right? The philanthropists of old were creatures of their time, after all, and bear no relation to modern philanthropy. Meanwhile, thanks to the political reforms of the past, the absolute power of wealth has been curtailed by the lively pluralism of civil society. Nowadays, even plutocrats know their place. Sure. Meanwhile, there remains a very pertinent question over the relationship between philanthropy and power.

As Stephen Pittam, a trustee of the Global Greengrants Fund, and a former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust worker (1986-2012), discussed in Alliance magazine (The power of money, September 2013): “It has become increasingly obvious that philanthropy thrives at times of inequality,” he wrote. “This was as true for the first burst of early 20th Century philanthropy as it is for what some are now describing as the second golden age.

“A century ago Seebohm Rowntree faced the embarrassing discovery through his pioneering research on poverty that some of the workers in his own family’s company (part-owned by its foundations) were paid insufficient wages to keep them out of poverty. After a generation of relative equality in the second half of the 20th Century, in the Global North at least, we are now back to facing the same dilemma – and at a time when philanthropy is growing once again.”

Philanthropy, by its nature, is an expression of power; the philanthropists of old knew this very well, but the ‘golden age’ of such loaded giving had its last gasp in the 1920s, as the essay collection points out.

By then the State was beginning to take a more direct hand on matters of housing and social welfare, spurred on by political and social pressures at home, as well as internationally (in this day and age, we tend to forget quite the extent of fear and hope that Bolshevism then inspired across the socio-economic divide in that pre-Cold War era).

But now the State is stepping back – leaving, we are told, a gap for philanthropy to make a comeback in the provision of housing and social well-being.

“We believe there are significant opportunities for businesses, foundations, grant-making trusts and individuals who want to help build a better society to work with us – perhaps with a smaller financial return, but certainly with an excellent social return on their investment. This project brings together a range of perspectives on how these opportunities can be progressed,” said Stephen Burns, Peabody’s executive director for new business, writing in the essay collection’s introduction.

“We are not suggesting that philanthropy or strategic giving can solve the affordable housing crisis on its own. Nor are we advocating the withdrawal of government investment in affordable homes. But it is clear from these essays that there is a role for philanthropy in affordable housing, and there are shared aims and aspirations between the sectors to build on.”

The State – the Government, if you prefer – is no neutral arbiter; it has its own agendas, and as the sector knows only too well, the relationship has more than a touch of the Faustian about it. Even so, it seems a sad indictment of these times that the housing sector must go ‘cap in hand’ to the monied classes to preserve its ability to deliver houses and promote social well-being.

On paper at least, it could be argued that via the State we are all philanthropists, collectively pooling our resources to invest in the common good, however imperfect that might be in practice. There is no such illusion with philanthropy; any social good achieved is purely and completely enabled by the generosity of a wealthy patron. In a very real sense, civil society becomes subordinated to the favours of those with the economic clout to be worth beseeching. Please, sir, can we have some more...

In reviving the housing sector’s relationship with philanthropic benefactors, how do we guard against the resurrection of those earlier paternalistic impulses? Can we be certain that philanthropy’s generosity won’t come at too high a price?

Housing professionals, though, are perhaps not the best ones to address such questions. If stern paternalism does ride in on the back of philanthropy, they’re not the ones who will be expected to doff their caps and do as they are told.

The essayists have little doubt that philanthropic capital can be harnessed to beneficial and benign intent, but the road to Hell, as the saying goes, is worth bearing in mind. Be careful what you wish for. In the 21st Century, we all deserve better than to live by Salt’s rule.

# # #

Spare a few million quid for social housing?

The collection of essays published by Peabody, NPC, and the Smith Institute, hopes to ignite a debate about the role that modern philanthropy can play in helping the social housing sector deliver more homes and improve community well-being.

Rebuilding the relationship between affordable housing and philanthropy’ is an unwieldy title for an otherwise interesting collection of essays, written by some well-known figures in the sector.

Over the last century or so, housing and philanthropy have rather gone their separate ways as the State took on a more interventionist role, but with the Government now stepping back, it suggests there is room for a comeback. The collection argues that, while philanthropic capital can’t solve the housing crisis in itself, it can certainly play a significant role if the two sectors renew their old acquaintance.

“This report represents a new beginning in the relationship between affordable housing and philanthropy,” said Stephen Burns, executive director for new business at Peabody. “There are huge opportunities for businesses, foundations, grant-making trusts, and individuals who want to help build a better society – to work with us. I hope this report will be the catalyst to make these possibilities a reality.”

Contributors include: David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation; Lord Richard Best, chair of Hanover Housing Group; Nick Salisbury, director of Social Finance; Stephen Burns, Peabody; Vicki Prout, housing lead, NPC; Alexis de Raadt St James, chairman and founder of the Althea Foundation; Theresa Lloyd, of Theresa Lloyd Architects; Danyal Sattar, social investment manager, Esmee Fairbarn Foundation; Professor Peter Malpass; and Brian Ham, chief executive of the Dolphin Square Foundation.

# # #

Salt’s rule 

  • Throughout the village, cleanliness, cheerfulness, and order must reign supreme
  • Only persons who are good, obedient, honest and hardworking will be allocated a house in each village
  • Anyone caught in a state of inebriation will immediately be evicted
  • All persons living in Saltaire will enjoy comfort utility, healthfulness and convenience. Each house and its immediate exterior is to be kept clean by, or at the expense of, the occupant
  • Any damage to any of the houses or fixtures, must be made good by the occupant, otherwise the cost thereof will be deducted from the weekly wage
  • No animals to be kept in the village including chickens, rabbits, or pigeons
  • The founder will make a periodical inspection of the village and housing
  • No washing to be hung out to dry in front or behind any of the properties, or in the vicinity of the village
  • The founder would recommend that all inmates wash themselves every morning, but they shall wash themselves at least twice a week, Monday morning and Thursday morning; any found not washed will be fined 3d for each offence
  • All children living or working in the village must attend school half time, up to the age of twelve years and learn reading, writing and arithmetic
  • None of the inmates… shall underlet the tenement assigned to him… or take any person to lodge or reside therein, without the written permission of the founder
  • Gatherings or loitering of more than eight persons in the streets is strictly forbidden

(Source: Saltaire Village Experience/Saltaire Tourist Information Centre)

This article first appeared as the cover story for the November 2013 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 28 March 2014

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