I do not buy lottery tickets. The chance of winning the jackpot is about one in 14 million so I only have a marginally less chance of winning without a ticket.
I am also reasonably happy with my lot in life. I am not sure that a £10m windfall would make me that much happier. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that sudden wealth has ruined the lives of the supposed lucky winners.
Nevertheless, I still play the parlour game of what I would you do with the money if I won the lottery. I hope I would give the money away. As Jesus said to the rich young man, not only should you obey the commandments, you should give away your possessions before you can be a disciple – by which I think he meant that money should not rule your life.
Did something along these lines go through the mind of the investment fund manager, Jonathan Ruffer, when he decided to donate £15million to save the set of paintings by the 17th Spanish master Francisco Zurbaran that hang in Auckland Castle?
In a recent interview, Mr Ruffer said that during an Ignatian retreat he decided to devote a considerable part of his income and working life, to help those worse off. I know only too well that time spent in retreat can lead to life changing decisions but am sorry to say that Mr Ruffer was not in residence at Shepherds Dene at the time.
The paintings are magisterial, larger than life portraits of Jacob and his twelve sons that hang in a room specially built for them in Auckland Castle. In the end, Mr Ruffer had to buy the castle as well but that is another story. The ambition of the newly formed Auckland Castle Trust set up by Jonathan Ruffer, which now owns the paintings, castle and park, lock, stock and barrel, is to develop a first class visitor attraction and revive the fortunes of Bishop Auckland – a tall order!
I hope Mr Ruffer is satisfied by his bold decision and wish him well with his future ambitions. It may be a more straightforward done deal to make a large philanthropic donation to buy something, build something or save something.
The nineteenth century Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built a library in every town that requested one and Keith Owen, a Canadian banker, has just left a £2m endowment to plant a million flowers in Sidmouth, Devon where he spent his holidays. Philanthropy can cater for every taste and does not judge the worthiness of the cause.
These donations invariably attract tax relief and, by denying the public purse, it could be said that you and I are contributing to building libraries, planting flowers and supporting the whims of others.
It is more difficult to change the world through philanthropic giving. When the McClelland family sold their family business, Laws Stores, in 1985, they decided, in the course of a family weekend. to set up a charitable trust with a good part of the proceeds. Since 1996, Millfield House Foundation ( the fateful weekend took place at Millfield House, their then home in Whickham) has pursued the aim of influencing public policy in ways that would tackle the causes of poverty and empower the disadvantaged in the North East.
Despite their best efforts and some notable achievements, and with my own help as a trustee for 10 years, poverty is still with us and indeed growing under the present government. But that is even more reason to support campaigns for a more equal society.
In an outspoken attack on the whole philanthropy business in the New York Times, Peter Buffett criticises philanthropists, including his own father, the most successful investor of the 20 th century and the worlds fourth richest man, for using their money to ‘save the day’ but in ways which ultimately ‘feeds the beast’ of wealth creation.
Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the mind set that created it. Peter Buffett proposes that we need a whole new operating system that will bring about systemic change in our economic affairs. Fine words if he can fulfil them.
Even on second order issues, though these include major problems like AIDS, philanthropists can convince themselves that they know best how to solve the worlds problems and do not always defer to the expert view.
It is still the case that wealthy people give a smaller proportion of their money away than the rest of us and in this respect Joan Edwards is an unsung hero. The reclusive retired nurse from Bristol left over half a million pounds to the government of the day “to use as they think fit.”
The Daily Mail has done us all a favour by exposing the way that the Conservative and Liberal parties tried to subvert this bequest into their own party funds. It is surprising their actions have not been more loudly condemned.
The donation is a case study in charitable giving. Miss Edwards did not seek any recognition. She left the decision about who should benefit to those arguably in the best position and with the greatest legitimacy to decide.
Personally, I hope the money is not just lost in the Treasury vaults and but that it is used for some specific purpose in her memory. It might encourage others to do the same.
Of course, not everyone would trust the government with their money. Another alternative is leave money to one of the excellent community foundations in the region and let them decide how best to spend it.
Jonathan Ruffer has also given £1 million to County Durham Community Foundation to help people back into employment. He see them “ as the local experts – to reach the parts that need help most, “ whilst he concentrates his efforts on Auckland Castle.
All power to him, the McClelland family, Andrew Owen and Joan Edwards who have in their different ways taken up the challenge of discipleship.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene http://www.shepherdsdene.co.uk