Chapter 1: Introduction

More, better, together: A strategic review of giving in London

Chapter 1: Introduction

London is often portrayed as a highly atomised or unfriendly place. 1 But it would be fairer to describe it as a city of contrasts – of angry commuters and dedicated community workers; global citizens and proud EastEnders; Silicon Roundabout and the Palace of Westminster; wealthy bankers and rough sleepers. This last comparison reflects a broader juxtaposition – that of wealth and poverty – which in many ways has come to define much of the capital’s history. In particular, the close proximity of the two has shaped a great tradition of charitable giving in London, a tradition now baked into the physical landscape of the capital. London’s history abounds with stories of individuals making their fortunes in the city before leaving their wealth for its betterment– often through building or supporting hospitals, orphanages and schools.

This report tries to get a measure on recent developments in charitable giving in London and suggests ways that this can be strengthened. Below, we review the history of philanthropy in the capital, before looking at how need in London has changed and assessing the current state of London’s civil society. We then present a detailed assessment of charitable activity across five types of giving, derived from an analysis of secondary data sources and interviews with sector experts. We conclude by combining insights from across these philanthropic sectors and assessing how London and Londoners can be encouraged to give more, give better, and give together.

London’s philanthropic history

The history of philanthropic giving and the history of London are heavily entwined. Many of London’s great historical figures made at least part of their name as benefactors of the capital – from the late-medieval Lord Mayor of London Dick Whittington and Tudor philanthropists Thomas Gresham and Thomas Sutton, to Enlightenment and Victorian figures such as Octavia Hill and Angela Burdett-Coutts. The history of philanthropy is also firmly embedded in the fabric of contemporary London, through hospitals such as Guy’s and St Thomas’, housing estates like those of Peabody, and the many galleries and performance spaces supported by charitable giving – from small community theatres to huge institutions like Tate Modern.

While much of the history of philanthropy in the capital may conjure up bygone images of medieval guilds, Elizabethan merchants or Victorian slums, some of the fundamental ingredients that fuelled philanthropy in earlier times remain in place today. In their 2013 study of philanthropy in the City of London, Cheryl Chapman and Dr Cathy Ross argue that the City’s “philanthropic DNA” is made up from the collision of four elements: wealth, poverty, (the virtue of) charity, and business. 2 The close proximity of the former two – wealth and poverty – clearly remains today, with London both the global billionaire capital and the site of some of the worst child poverty rates in the UK. 3

A charitable outlook is also a feature of contemporary London society, albeit with Christian and Jewish traditions now complemented by Islamic, Hindu and Sikh cultures of giving, as well as a secular conception of “giving something back”. And while ‘social finance’ may seem like a thoroughly modern concept, the entrepreneurialism and financial expertise which propelled early London’s economic growth were also central to its development as a centre of philanthropy.

Other comparisons with previous philanthropic ages shed further light on the contemporary context. First, while many of London’s philanthropists have directed their efforts towards improving the lives of Londoners, the capital has long been the centre for national and international philanthropic movements. As Britain’s empire grew, so did London’s role as a centre for philanthropic activity devoted to helping “native populations” and ending the worst abuses of imperialism, including slavery. This activity was the forerunner to London’s role as a centre of international development charities today. 4

Turning to London-focused activity, it is clear that while philanthropy has historically supported a diverse range of causes, three really stand out: health; young people; housing. Some of the earliest philanthropic endeavours focused on hospitals and health – including the five hospitals established by religious orders in the late medieval and early Tudor periods 5 – followed by Guy’s Hospital in 1726 (funded by Thomas Guy) and the Westminster Infirmary in 1720 (maintained by charitable subscription). Youth has been a second focus, including the endowment of an independent charitable school by Sir John Cass in 1709, and Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (a children’s home) founded in 1741. Finally, during the Victorian era, housing emerged as the most high-profile cause – with the likes of George Peabody and Angela Burdett-Coutts pioneering the development of tenements in Spitalfields, Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green.

Today, while state involvement has changed the dynamics of giving in each of these areas, they remain key sites of voluntary activity. Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity and Barts and the London Charity are the two largest NHS charities, both fundraising and providing grants to support their hospitals and public health in the local area. Education remains a focus, thanks in part to the charitable legacies of figures like Sir John Cass and John Gresham (Gresham College), as well as longstanding relationships between livery companies and academic institutions – but also due to a huge range of new charities devoted to improving skills and helping disadvantaged young Londoners. While the state and then the private sector have come to dominate housing provision, the impact of austerity and the housing crisis have pushed this issue firmly back on the philanthropic agenda.

The kinds of philanthropy practiced in earlier periods – and the types of people who did so – also echo today. The role of bequests was central in establishing London’s philanthropic reputation, with wealthy benefactors leaving money in trust with the Church, the Lord Mayor, or the liveries. In the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, fundraising (often termed “subscriptions”) became more commonplace, while housing projects later in the period were often funded by “5 per cent philanthropy companies” that built social housing while also making a financial return. Likewise, a range of motivations have animated London’s long history of philanthropy. While many London philanthropists have been socially conservative, others like Octavia Hill, or Samuel Barnet, the founder of Toynbee Hall, have been committed social reformers. The distinction between philanthropy and social activism has and still is often hard to maintain.


Nonetheless, giving in London is not a story of unbroken continuity. A number of contrasts stand out.

First, the scope of giving has changed. The promotion of religious education and virtue feature much less today than they once did – giving has undergone a process of secularisation – while support for environmental and cultural causes has grown. London is now home to many international charities focused on preserving the natural environment and combatting climate change, as well as efforts to improve the city’s environment and public health. Likewise, while London’s thriving cultural life is powered partly by commerce and partly by public subsidy, charitable giving is increasingly a factor.

Second, we have seen a substantial professionalisation of philanthropic activity – business, corporates and wealthy individuals can draw on an army of experts in charity management and impact, many of whom have spent their whole lives working in the third sector and some of whom have degrees in fundraising, running charities, evaluation and so forth.

Third, philanthropy now sits alongside a far more developed system of national and local state support, albeit with austerity once again blurring the boundaries between two. At the same time, the voluntary sector has come to understand itself in a new way. Though support for many aspects of the welfare state remains strong in Britain, we have become more aware of the limitations (as well as the strengths) of state-provided services than we were in the heyday of the postwar welfare state. The public sector has often struggled to innovate in addressing social problems or “wicked issues” that require sustained, joined-up or personalised care – from helping “problem families” and tackling homelessness to supporting people with chronic health conditions. Charities and social enterprises, by contrast, are often well positioned to experiment with new ways of solving the most stubborn social problems. Whereas voluntary activity was once seen as a supplement or alternative to the market, we are now more likely to conceive of it as addressing the limits of the market and the state.

Finally, we have become more alert than earlier generations to the unequal power relations that are inherent in much philanthropy. We are also more concerned to mitigate these unequal power relations by working with and empowering the recipients of charity – rather than simply “acting upon them”.

Moving with the times

What does this short review of the history of giving in London teach us? It is a tale of both caution and hope. There have always been limits to what philanthropists can provide and the scale of social problems they can address alone. Ross and Chapman’s work points out, for example, that Coram’s famous Foundling Hospital used a ballot to allocate places, and the London Orphan Asylum used to hold an annual election wherein its supporters would hold a vote on which children to admit. It’s naïve to think that London’s voluntary sector can solve the city’s problems alone. It is only by working in partnership with other institutions – particularly the state and communities – that systemic social problems can be effectively tackled. Much philanthropic giving in London has also long been characterised by problems of amateurism and particularism – by a failure to understand the dynamics of inequality, the nature of need, the opportunities for collaboration, and the effectiveness or otherwise of charitable activity. Octavia Hill famously said that there had been “terrible mistakes and failures” in some philanthropic activity of her era, and that “if money had been thrown into the sea, it would have been better”. 2

At the same time, charitable giving has left a profound mark on the city, enriching the lives of both benefactors and recipients – and showing a remarkable ability to move with the times.

  • 1 Provident Personal Credit (2017). Unbroken Britain. Retrieved from: community-survey/#
  • 2 Chapman, C., & Ross, C. (2013). Philanthropy: A City Story. London: City Philanthropy.
  • 3 End Child Poverty (2018). More than half of children now living in poverty in some parts of the UK. [Press Release]. Retrieved from: now-living-in-poverty-in-some-parts-of-the-uk.
  • 4 Sriskandarajah, D. (2015). Global Civil Society: London’s Role. London Essays. London: Centre for London.
  • 5 St Bartholomew’s, Bethlem, Bridewell, Christ’s, and St Thomas’.
  • 6 Chapman, C., & Ross, C. (2013). Philanthropy: A City Story. London: City Philanthropy.