Whatever happened to philanthropy?

PIPPIN the puppy was walking me along the West Walks in Dorchester the other day, past the Borough Gardens, and I couldn’t help wondering what happened to philanthropy? When did it become that strange hybrid of giving with a purpose that we call “sponsorship”?

The Borough Gardens, with their pretty bandstand and their colourful and slightly over-the-top clock-tower are a microcosm of Victorian public works, purpose and philanthropy. Created by people with vision, money and a desire to do something for their fellow townspeople, they are, as they were always intended to be, a place for people of all ages and from all walks of life to relax, exercise, refresh their batteries after a hard morning or day in the office, a place of peace and birdsong, strangely but delightfully removed from the roar of traffic and the rat-race of 21st century life.

Henrietta Gardens in Bath are similarly tranquil, set apart from the busy city with its traffic, its maze of bus lanes and one-way streets and its cascading hordes of office workers, shoppers and tourists.

Many towns have their equivalent haven of greenery, sometimes with streams running through or ornamental lakes, occasionally overlooked by statues of the long-forgotten Sir Somebody This or General Something That, possibly the donor of the land or the planting or a Very Important Person in whose memory the public place or space was created.

If you wander around Oxford or Cambridge, you will notice that many of the colleges were founded by various lofty personages, peers or princes or cardinals, possibly endowing a centre of learning to smooth their path to the pearly gates or at a more basic level, to curry favour with the monarch.

From the Victorian and Edwardian period there are theatres and concert halls, art galleries, museums, scientific research centres and other facilities established to improve our knowledge and understanding or simply to give pleasure, often paid for and named after wealthy philanthropists.

It still happens occasionally – the Sainsbury family name and The Gates Foundation appear on both scientific and artistic establishments. But far more frequent now are the ephemeral “sponsors” whose names are attached to an event, a festival of artistic or sporting achievement, awards or even a new building, but whose names are replaced when their sponsorship expires and a new sponsor is recruited.

Sponsorship, unlike philanthropy, buys only two things – short-term publicity and time measured out in cash and contracts. Who can remember the name of the latest sponsor of the London Marathon or the FA Cup? Sponsors buy into a brand – say, the Olympics – to gain awareness, and the more cash they put in the more they can stamp their own brand on the object of their outlay. But who now can remember the major sponsors of London 2012 – what we remember is Mo Farrah and Jess Innes, the Queen and James Bond, the triumphs and the tears.

Out of curiosity, I typed “major event sponsorship” into Google and it told me there were “about 40,400,400 results” – the first link, after an advert for “Event Sponsorship Boards,” was for Coca-Cola. It is very big business.

But at least these major event sponsors make an important contribution, even if it isn’t altruistic (there are tax breaks as well as international publicity for the global brands involved) – and the events themselves give pleasure and excitement to thousands or even millions of people around the world.

Not so the depressing phenomenon of so-called “awards schemes” whose existence is entirely to make money for the organisation (often, but not exclusively a newspaper or media company) with little or no interest or benefit for a wider community. Sponsors are persuaded to part with £1,500 to £5,000 to have their name up on a PowerPoint presentation at a “prestigious gala” event – finalists pay anything from £50 to £200 for their tickets (not too bad if you win, but a sorry waste of your hard-earned cash if you go home with an also-ran certificate) and the organisers count the profits.

At the other end of the sponsorship spectrum, the volunteers who run events for their local communities can’t manage without sponsors. They are genuinely grateful for their generosity, the more so because the sponsors’ rewards will be mostly thanks, perhaps free tickets and the warm glow of helping to put on events of all sizes from horse or dog shows to food, literary, arts or film festivals, autumn carnivals or Christmas pantomimes.

We need another word to differentiate them from the spurious sponsorships that are just another revenue stream for big businesses – their contributions may come in all sizes, and most are quite modest, but they come without strings and they make a significant and valuable contribution to the local or regional economy.

“Benefactors” may be a rather old-fashioned word, but it means what it says – they do good.

Fanny Charles