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What Shapes Charity Culture in the UK?

The culture of charity and giving in the UK is shaped by three key factors: state structures, citizens’ religious backgrounds, and the country’s industrial and colonial history.

Why do we give, and what does charity mean to us? I’ll look at the example of the UK and briefly examine three areas: the role of the state, the role of religion and the role of history.

The State

Firstly, the role of the state. There is a strong public feeling that the welfare state is a crowning achievement of the country—witness for example the centrality of the National Health Service in the Olympic ceremony for London 2012. However, there is also a lot of overlap between the state and non-state actors. There are more than 160,000 charities and an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 unregistered charitable organisations in the UK. By most measures, the UK is a country where being charitable is important, and the country was ranked seventh in this regard last year.

In recent years, the boundaries between the different sectors: public, private and ‘third’ (charity) feels like it has become more and more blurred. Charities are increasingly having to think like businesses to survive; businesses are taking over many areas formerly run by the state; while the state is keen to get more people to volunteer and for charities to take the strain, especially while the UK has been in economic recession.


Considering the role of religion in the giving and charity culture of the UK, the Christian heritage of the country plays a significant part, as much as anything simply because many charities in the country were set up by Christian reformers. While the UK is becoming less religious in general, as it is becoming both more religiously and culturally diverse, other faiths are playing an increasingly important role in the charitable fabric and charitable sensibilities of the nation. In addition, even though atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, the predominant Judeo-Christian underpinning of the laws and public norms affect both the understanding and practice of charity in the country. For example, many members of the public are against charities having paid staff, because they see charitable activity as moral only when it is voluntary.


Looking at the role of the history of the UK on this issue, I would say there are two key topics. The first is early industrialisation and the second is a post-colonial legacy. The UK was the first country in the world to industrialise. While this brought a huge rise in wealth, it also created social conditions arguably different to those the world had ever witnessed before. The rapid concentration of people in cities and the mass coordination of standardized work meant that social reformers and ruthless capitalists alike had reason to find new ways to organise and support the working population. Many of the current largest and best known charities in the UK were started by people who observed the conditions of the working poor and knew that something needed to be done outside what the state could provide at that time. This has given the UK a charitable heritage deeper and different to countries that industrialized more recently.

As a former colonial power I believe the UK has a responsibility—and indeed that it shows that it (at least partially) accepts the responsibility—of trying to support other parts of the world in times of need. This is a politically sensitive issue with those on the right of the political spectrum generally arguing that money should be spent closer to home. Earlier this year, the UK made a legally binding commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on aid every year. This made it the first country in the G7 to meet a target set by the UN 45 years ago.

The UK has a highly developed civil society. It is worth noting however that most charity support is on a small scale, in local communities, carried out by volunteers and generally isn’t well measured or even understood. Many people who support charities either financially or with their time are not engaged with the formal charity sector. They just see a need or they have an issue which has affected their family and they want to do something to help.

Read more in this debate: Antonis Schwarz, Marieke van Schaik, Amal Imad.


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