Dr. Ewan Kirk on Philanthropisms podcast – “Don’t worry about the fact the other ones failed”

Our founder, Dr. Ewan Kirk, recently appeared on the Philanthropisms podcast, hosted by Rhodri Davies. In the episode, Ewan discusses why charitable donors need to understand the position of power they may hold over charities and why giving charities the space to fail will only help the charities to succeed in the future.

Ewan delves into the often-overlooked element of philanthropy that charities are often apprehensive about questioning or challenging donors out of fear of not meeting expectations and losing that funding.

About Philanthropisms

The Philanthropisms podcast aims to put philanthropy in context. Featuring guests such as charity founders, educators, and philanthropic advisors, the podcast deep dives into philanthropy topics that are often left out of the conversation. It is hosted by Rhodri Davies, author of Public Good by Private Means: How Philanthropy Shapes Britain and philanthropic advisor to CEOs.


Rhodri Davies (R): Hello, you are listening to the Philanthropisms podcast. This is the podcast where we try to put philanthropy in context. I'm your host as ever, Rhodri Davis, and this week we have a conversation with Dr. Ewan Kirk, and Ewan is a philanthropist and the founder of the Turner Kirk Trust. And I had a great conversation with him all about his central thesis that it's important to let charities fail which might sound like a slightly negative approach to philanthropy, but actually it captures a really important point about the role of philanthropy in risk taking and supporting organisations to try things out when they might not be able to find funding to do that from other sources. So, I sat down a few weeks ago with Ewan and had thought it's a really great conversation.

So we talked about what it actually means to fail in the context of philanthropy and what distinguishes between a good failure and a bad failure. How it is that you decide beforehand what is a risk worth taking and what might be something that's not worth putting money behind. We talked about whether philanthropy as a whole is actually too risk averse and doesn't really grasp the nettle of its central role in supporting risk and whether actually it was missing a trick by doing that.

We talked about how this need to be able to take more risks relates to the focus on measurement of impact and setting firm goals and whether actually one of the things about allowing organisations to take more risk is to not put so many constraints on them. And whether that all ties into things like core cost funding as opposed to programmatic funding.

We also talked a bit about whether sometimes a focus on risk might end up going too far and whether actually there's a danger that, in looking for big solutions and moonshots, philanthropists actually get carried away and that they should perhaps restrain some of those impulses a bit and focus more on the immediate needs of the here and now.

We also talk quite a bit about the relationship between philanthropy and government, particularly. When in taking risks, philanthropy needs to be thinking about what the exit is and whether actually the natural eventual exit for most interventions is for the state to take over and what that actually looks like in practice.

So, without further ado, let's go into the conversation. I hope you enjoy it. I thought it was a really fascinating one. And I will be back at the end for the usual bit of housekeeping.

I'm here with Dr. Ewan Kirk. Hi Ewan.

Ewan Kirk (E): Hi, Rhodri how are you?

R: I'm very good, thank you. Great to have you on the podcast. And so, Ewan you are yourself a philanthropist and you founded and run the Turner Kirk Trust. And we're here to talk particularly about a really interesting point of view you've got about why it's really important to allow charities to fail. And I want to unpack what you mean by that and how it guides your approach to philanthropy. But maybe the best place to start, just to say a bit about, how you got going in philanthropy in the first place and what it is that the Turner Kirk Trust does?

E: Sure. My background is that, after becoming an academic, I went to the dark side and joined Goldman Sachs and I was a partner there. And then I ran a hedge fund. And it was definitely the case that during that whole period I did philanthropic things, but I really didn't have the bandwidth to think about it.

Neither I nor my wife, we run the trust together, really had any bandwidth to think carefully about philanthropy and what it should be for us. We didn't really have any focus. We didn't do any follow up. It was people who would come and say, “oh would you like to support this?” And I would say, “Sure, here we are. Have some money now never talk to me again.” and that's not really the best way to think about this. So when I finally disengaged from that whole financial services world, we sat down and thought carefully about what it is we wanted to do and tried to have some areas that we focused in and also tried a little bit to think about the process. Whilst, we can fund reasonably sized projects, we're not the Gates Foundation. And something like, I don’t know, solving the malaria problem is really not something that we can do. So we thought carefully about the areas that we were interested in and that we could potentially have some impact in, and then try to focus on those.

R: And what was it that led you to focus on the particular cause areas rather than, the overall approach that you ended up settling on? Was that informed by your own experience in academia or your career beforehand?

E: I think it depends on one's background and experience. I personally like getting involved in things that I have domain specific knowledge. So, STEM is something that's particularly interesting to me and has informed either my academic career or my commercial career. And for Trish, it has been things like conservation and child development. And I think the other thing that philanthropists sometimes don't think about is to try and have an exclusion list.

It's easy to get involved in a lot of different things, but if you think about it as “what are the things that we just, either don't want to or can't or it is not efficient to get involved in” that cuts down what you work on quite well.

For example, our trust just doesn't support any medical charities or medical research. Now, that is not to say that medical research is not an important thing. But medical research gets about 50% of all of the philanthropic donations in the UK in any one year. So in some way, medicine is doing okay and there are areas in which it is much harder to get funding and it's quite nice to focus on those areas.

I should just add, it's important to focus on philanthropic projects that you are actually going to enjoy being involved with.

R: That's absolutely crucial and I think having that self-awareness, because, as you were saying earlier, being realistic about what you are actually able to do with the resources available to you means you can't do everything. So you have to have some process of narrowing down.

I want to come onto how you actually go about delivering your funding and, particularly, something that I've seen you say that really struck me, which is that a lot of your approach is about allowing the charities that you fund and the organisations you work with to have permission to fail. I wonder if you can say a bit about what you mean by that and why it's so important to you.

E: Permission to fail is one of the mantras that we have at the trust and some of that comes from a fairly fundamental thing which is you learn more from failure than you learn from success in most cases.

So one of the things that we noticed early on, when we were starting this process, is that there is a very big focus on impact. And that is, in a sense, rightly so. If you're giving some money to some project or some cause, you want to know that your money is having an impact. To use an example, if you are giving money to a donkey sanctuary, you want to know that donkeys are being saved with your money and you want that to be a measurable impact. Measurable impact is something that has been a big theme in philanthropy for a couple of decades. However, the downside of that, is that the organisations that you fund are then under incredible pressure to demonstrate impact and to demonstrate that your money has had that impact and has been successfully deployed.

Now what that causes, or the unintended consequence there, is that it's very hard for the recipients of philanthropic money to experiment. To do those things, which have a high probability of failure. Now, that's bad.

It is the case that philanthropic capital should be the highest risk capital in any project because philanthropists are the ones who their return on capital is zero. It's not even that; it's an entire loss. So what we say to charities, or what we try and seek out in our projects, which have a significant probability of failure and which, were they to succeed, would be transformative or catalytic or however you want to do that. And so, we go to universities or we go to charities and we say, so what are the things that you just can't get funded because they might fail?

R: It's absolutely fascinating and I think in terms of linking that question of measurement, and particularly measurement of impact, to the challenges around being able to take risks and failure, it does seem as though it's a really clear link. But I'm assuming you also, in some sense, want to know that the things you are funding are successful in some sense.

So how do you square that circle? Assuming you don't set specific outputs or outcomes that you want organisations to deliver because you want them to have the freedom to try things and experiment and fail, if they get to the end of a project and it doesn't deliver the outcomes that they said that they were aiming for, but it does achieve other things. What are the ways that you have of measuring whether or not you feel satisfied with that?

E: That's a great question. I mean, obviously it would be unfortunate if we were to fund a project and the people running the project spent all the money on booze and parties. So we'd rather that didn't happen.

So, some element of reporting and following up during the course of the project can make you feel comfortable that the money that you have donated to this is at least going to the project that you wanted it to go to. You definitely don't want to, in any sense, waste money.

However, a way of thinking about this is how you think about the outcome x-ante and x-post. So, if x-ante, at the beginning, this was a good idea or something that could potentially generate some interesting research or interesting results or do something valuable in some particular sphere, then you made a good decision x-ante. Now at the end of the decision or at the end of the project, if it has turned out that was not the case, that's okay in a sense. X-post if it didn't work out, that's all right. That's what permission to fail means and, at some fundamental level, even if a project fails, you have got some value out of it, and the value that you've got out of it is, "we tried this and it didn't work, and so therefore I think people shouldn't do that".

It's the null result problem in science. There's been a big problem for scientists who are applying for grants. Doing an experiment, getting £1 million pounds from the EPSRC and doing an experiment, and it turns out that there is no effect. It's hard to publish that result because it's not considered very exciting.

But if you don't publish that result, if you don't tell everybody that I did this and it doesn't work, then there's going to be loads of other people doing the same thing and finding out that it doesn't work. And it is one of the problems that's so deep seated in philanthropy, that there isn't really a forum to publicise, in the same way as scientific journals are publicised, projects which work and projects which don't work.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would create a central clearing house for philanthropists and the charities that they fund, where it is public what people have funded and it's public what the results are. And encourage people to, before they go and do something to work out whether or not somebody else has done it before.

R: It's a really interesting idea and I guess in, in terms of what you're saying there, it feels as though part of it is about distinguishing in a sense between, a good version of failure and a bad version of failure. As you say, if there are things that you could have known x-ante that clearly were always going to cause something to fail and you go ahead anyway that's a bad failure. Whereas if after the event you tried something and it didn't work out then that is a sort of good failure.

Do you think part of the problem is that we just don't draw that distinction clearly enough in philanthropy at the moment? So failure is just lumped together as one homogeneous thing?

E: I think, more broadly than philanthropy, we don't draw that distinction very well across all sorts of spheres. Government policy, for example, is a place where it's very hard to fail. It's very hard to say we thought this was a good idea, but it turned out not to be It. It might help, maybe if I give an example.

There's one classic example, which the trust funded which we use a lot, but it's a very good example. It's maybe the best example of how permission to fail can work well. So a few years ago, a charity came to us called SolarAid, who had a process of getting solar panels, which charge a little battery, which can power an LED light for six hours and also has a USB port that you can charge your phone. Now these don't cost very much, maybe $10, $20 to get delivered from China to Kinshasa or Kigali in Rwanda or wherever it may be. Now, what they wanted to do was to take these lights and distribute them to villages, but what they didn't know was what is the business model to do that?

Is it giving the lights away? That's a typical philanthropic way of doing things. But the research, when you give people malaria nets for free, they use them for fishing, which is not a good thing to do. Maybe you could rent them? Maybe it could be a higher purchase agreement? Maybe there would be some way of saving up for a light and who's the right person to do that? Should there be somebody in the village who does this, should it be somebody externally? It's just a whole load of variables and no data. So we said to them, "why don't you go to five different villages and run five totally different pilots to attempt to try different-" I'm struggling to avoid the word business model here because people don't often use the word business model in philanthropic terms, but you should, "-and what is the right distribution model for these lights where you get the most lights to the most people and the most people benefit from having solar lights?”.

And the kicker on that was, "and we literally don't care if all five of them fail because if all five of them fail that means there must be another way of doing it". So they went away and did it, and it turned out that one of them was, far away, the best way of doing it, which happened to be distributing lights through schools because the lights are seen to be a way of doing your homework at home.

Now they have a lot of other benefits, but that was the kicker. That was the killer feature, if you'd like to use that. So in some senses, since we did five experiments, 80% of that money was completely wasted. Or was it? It was the right thing to do and it turned out to move that charity on quite a long way.

So there's a good example of why, even x-ante, we knew that some of these things would be worse than others. Otherwise, there's no point in doing five experiments. You know that one way of doing it is going to be wrong. You just don't know which one it is and you know that one is going to be the best, but again, you don't know which one it is.

So do them all. Find out what's best and don't worry about the fact that the other ones failed.

R: It's a really interesting example. It makes me think of something else, which is that obviously there's a whole spectrum of points at which you can apply philanthropic funding from the highly upstream where you're putting money into early-stage research or policy and advocacy work to try and tackle fundamental underlying causes of an issue, and then all the way downstream way of actually delivering services. It feels as though that one, the intervention was already there and it was more about the implementation.

Have you found in your funding so far that there's been a spread of different opportunities to fund at different points? Or have they tended to bunch more at the upstream or downstream end?

E: They tend to bunch more at the early-stage end. Some of that is due to the level of funding that we can provide. As I said earlier, we're not the Gates Foundation and so therefore you have to pick your projects where your level of funding can be deployed effectively. And often, that is at early-stage experimental projects.

It's something that you find, were it to succeed, you then would have a big effect in taking forward some form of change. Later on in the process, certainly very later on in the process, it's very hard to make real impact as a philanthropist because the scale of the problems that you're trying to solve are enormous, and they're just not accessible to any reasonable degree of philanthropic capital.

R: It's a good point and it only comes on to something I want to talk about in a moment, about where the balance of expectation lies between what we look to philanthropy to do and what we have to reasonably expect the state to do. Just before we do that, I wanted to ask, obviously your own approach is guided by this idea that you need to empower the charities and organisations you're working with to have room to fail and to take risks.

Is that something that you want to promote as an idea that all other funders should be doing, or do you think it's something that only a subset of them will ever do and that their will be other funders that take a lower risk or a more risk averse approach and that's fine?

E: Well, I am of course, arrogant enough to believe that my way of doing this is the best way of doing things. And if I was king of the world, of course everyone would have to do things my way. Maybe the meta thing to say here is there should be room for all philanthropists to experiment on their own way of doing things. And maybe we fail. Who knows?

I think it's definitely worthwhile having the conversation. There are some charities that are definitely going to find it pretty hard to fail consistently. Certainly, the largest ones and also the larger philanthropic organisations probably find it hard to fail consistently. If you're funding something at £10,000, £100,000, £250,000, it's probably easier to fail then if you are giving £50 million to something depending on the size of the charity and so on.

One of the other things is about making a large number of small diversified bets. You can tell that I used to be in the financial industry. Putting all your eggs in one basket is probably a very bad thing to do because failure is something that happens, and so failure should not be something that goes "Oh, bugger. I've just blown my entire trust fund on some something that might have worked, but it failed". So there's an approach there that you have to think carefully about.

I think there's another element of this, which is maybe a little bit more subtle, which is that there is a tendency, of course, for philanthropists to tell charities what to do. So the people who are on the ground who are proposing the project, they come and say "we'd like to do this" and philanthropists often get too involved and start to conditionalize their donations on something being approached any particular way, and I'm not sure about that.

It's very hard for charities or academic institutions if somebody comes to you and says "here's £10 million, or a £100 million and I wanted to do this, I want to create a professorship in donkey sanctuaries, or I want to build a building for art history.", it is almost impossible for a university or a charity to say "that's really great. We'd love to have this money, but we don't want to spend it on the thing that you want to spend it on. We want to spend it on something else." That's a really hard thing to do.

Because you are paying the bills as the philanthropist, charities tend to be less able to say "actually, we don't want to do what you want to do." And that's a really hard thing to do. It's like telling your boss that he's wrong or telling your boss that she's doing the wrong thing. There's an activation energy which you have to get over.

So we try and make it explicit when we're talking to charities about projects that they are the experts. They should do it the way they want to. We've picked the overall area. We might be very interested in how you develop mathematical skills when you're quite young, because if you don't develop them when you're quite young, you don't really get on in mathematics very well.

But I might have some views about how I think that should be done, but if we are going to fund projects, then it's really up to the project coordinators, the people who are actually on the ground, the experts, to tell us "we think this is a good way of doing this".

R: It sounds fascinating and it's absolutely the right approach. Do you think it requires a level of self-awareness and I guess, to a degree, humility that not all philanthropists are going to have? And is there anything that you can do to shift cultural norms among potential philanthropists, more towards recognising the need to have that humility.

E: It definitely is a cultural problem and a good example is; when I was at Goldman Sachs, at some point in my career I got promoted to partner and the senior partner in the firm he was patting me on the back and saying, well done. And I was thinking, "whoa, this is great".

He said to me "The thing you have to remember is that you automatically now speak with a louder voice so try and speak quieter. Try and say less because everyone's listening" and I think trying to control that desire to direct is a self-awareness thing. You have to be aware of the fact that you might be paying the bills.

So I'll give another example. We're currently in the process of funding a mathematics of conservation challenge at Imperial College. They've got a group who's brought together conservationists and mathematicians, which is perfectly designed for our trust, and what we suggested to them was “why don't you go and have a look at thinking about very short projects, six-month projects, where you can work on something that is really risky. It might not work, this research might not be there, the data might not be there, whatever it is, go ahead and make some proposals.”. Now both of us, founders of the trust, are on the group that is reviewing the proposals, but we are not going to choose because we're not the experts.

I think we've got 12 proposals comb through? So I'm really interested to go through them. But at the end of the day, it is not our job to choose which ones get funded. It is the job of Imperial College or the mathematicians that run this.

R: I just wanted to circle back a little bit to the question we were talking about before in terms of whether, philanthropy as a whole should essentially shift more towards a culture of taking more risks and allowing failure, assuming that you were successful in that aim and that happened. What I was wondering is at the point then, where you've provided that philanthropic risk capital and you found something that works or is sufficiently low risk that it doesn't really need to be seen in those terms anymore, what's the exit?

Would there be other philanthropy that is less risk tolerant that would come in and keep funding that over the longer term? Or do you look to the state or to the private sector? Either to take that on in, in state provision or to make it something that is a kind of viable business proposition?

E: I think it has to be the latter. There isn't enough philanthropic capital to be able to fund major changes. There's recent statistic I came across is that there's currently about $2 trillion of philanthropic capital, which seems like a lot right? That sounds like an absolutely massive number, but that's a stock, it's not a flow. So the question is; how much actual philanthropic funding is there?

If we assume that 10% of all philanthropic capital is deployed in any year, then we're talking about $200 billion. Again, that seems like a lot, but it's not. It's roughly about $20 per person in the world per year. $20 per person per year doesn't transform the world. It really doesn't. So the only two domains which have enough money to make these kinds of changes are the private sector and obviously governments. And governments that tend to be funded by philanthropy; education, medicine, welfare infrastructure.

Let's take the solar lights problem. It would be possible to give every house in every village in Malawi solar light system for $100 million, $200 million, and it's quite small to literally electrify everyone in Malawi. That would be a great thing, right? But that's way outside philanthropic capital. And once you've done that, you've done Malawi, but then you've got Tanzania, you've got Rolando, you've got everywhere else.

Whereas, even for somewhere like Malawi, spending of that nature over the course of five to 10 years, it's not a huge part of the budget given the welfare. So I would say in most cases, philanthropy’s job is to create a template that can then be used by government to, not to extend the template analogy, to stamp out hundreds of versions of whatever project it is that you have done.

It's not philanthropy's job to step into the shoes that the state should have. If we have a state and they are generally very good at things, then philanthropy's job is to say to the state, "Hey, you're doing this or you have this problem", and that problem might be anything that ranges from prisoners who reoffend to Alzheimer's. Then "we have come up with a way of solving this societal or medical or welfare or research problem. You now need to run with this because we proved that it works".

R: Does that require then, that we put more emphasis in ensuring that we have effective mechanisms for doing that so that there isn't the danger that we are producing lots of good innovations and interventions and finding things that work, but then there's a gap between that and what the state actually is aware of and is willing to take up and that we may need to make sure that gap is constantly closed?

E: Absolutely. And that relationship between the philanthropic sector and the government sector is often difficult. It depends on which somebody knows somebody and maybe you can get to meet the minister for X at some point. I mean, there's lots of opportunities to do that but sometimes that pitch is a little bit "here is my hobby horse. I think this is really important" rather than " you must invest more in ‘name your thing’" and people go and talk to their MPs about it without really having the evidence. And I think what governments should insist on is that there should be a channel to do that.

But it should be evidence-based because almost by definition, charities themselves are incredibly passionate about their cause. And how does an MP or a minister distinguish between this incredibly passionate person who's hugely passionate about donkey welfare, (and I use that example a lot and there's nothing wrong with donkey welfare. It's an important thing for donkeys, but maybe not societally important.). How do you distinguish between somebody who's incredibly passionate about donkey welfare and wants the government to create a chain of donkey sanctuary and somebody who's maybe less passionate, but has some really good evidence that these interventions in primary schools is going to help the development of mathematical skills for five- to ten-year-olds.

It's really hard to do that, but it would be actually be quite valuable for the government to have some process of evaluating these things and a method for charities to say, "we're going to go and try this. If it works, it will show you this and therefore you can take it" and prejudge these experiments so that they're registered. There's somebody who's responsible for understanding whether or not they're good or bad. I'm no great fan of bureaucracy and I'm sure that something like this would be very difficult to do, but it would be quite an interesting way of leveraging government.

The other place that you could leverage, of course, is the private sector. This is harder because making money as a charity or doing things commercially as a charity is often seen to not be a good thing. There's stories from, the nineties and the early two thousands about micro loan banks that were a big deal. I think it started in Bangladesh and then people ruled them out across Africa and other parts of the developing world.

The idea there was that people could borrow $5 for three weeks and actually use that to go to a market and buy a pig and slaughter the pig and sell the bits of the pig for $10 and suddenly somebody's made $5. That's an amazing multiplier effect.

And I think they worked fairly well. However, there was always this tension in these things because the banks themselves, however small they were, and some of these banks would have overall capital or loan base of £10,000 or less than that, certainly not Silicon Valley Bank to use a topical term, they had to be self-sustaining. So in that sense, they had to charge interest rates that covered their costs and suddenly, this doesn't feel quite like charity does it. It's something else. I'm running a bank and it charges some of the poorest people in the world interest on the money that's lent to them? That doesn't seem right to me.

My view was that these are good things, but there was certainly an underlying tension there. Similarly, with the SolarAid project, which I referred to earlier, a number of the models, and in fact the one that was chosen, involves people buying their lights, using their real money to buy lights, which there's definitely some underlying feeling of being a little bit uncomfortable there. However, that being said, the private sector has been in the past, and continues to be, a pretty solid contributor to welfare and human happiness. There are obviously exceptions to that, but the private sector produces things that people want and makes them feel good.

So, it seems like that is a place that charities should also get involved in. Whether or not there's some kind of commercial entrepreneurship spinoff from charities. I haven't really thought about this before, but if a charity has a model that works, then maybe the right thing is to spin off a company from it. Given that the charity has shown that this process works, then maybe you should start a new company and start to do it as part of the private sector.

R: Picking up on that, and to what you were saying earlier about the risks of philanthropists sometimes having pet projects that they want to push with government, when it comes to risk in philanthropy, I think one of the fascinating things at the moment is there are some examples of, I think unarguably genuine, risk taking, but ones that are still proving to be quite controversial. Because if anything, I think people feel as if they're going too far in allowing the donors or philanthropists themselves to decide what are worthwhile risks.

And I'm thinking here of some of the examples that have come from philanthropists, from a tech background. Where they're very focused on big bets or moonshots and things like the existential risk of AI breakout or human colonies on Mars or life extension technology. What's your take on that in the context of your focus on risk?

Do you think actually that kind of goes too far, and there's actually an argument we need to slightly reign in some of those wild tendencies for philanthropists to want to take big risks?

E: I think it's a dumb thing to do. Life extension technologies or moonshots to Mars or whatever. The reason why there's so much interest in Silicon Valley in life extension technologies is that there are all these people hitting their fifties and starting to feel their knees going and losing their hair. And so, it's not really philanthropy, it's self-interest.

However, whilst I might think that this is a dumb use of philanthropy and there's an opportunity cost here, because the dumb use of philanthropy means that philanthropic capital can't be deployed anywhere else, you can't really tell people that they can't do that. If somebody wants to waste a million dollars of their ill-gotten gains on some quack life extension technology, then fair enough. You can't really stop them. The only thing that we should be annoyed about is, that's money which could go to causes which have, not just a better chance of success, have more impact on human welfare in some very broad sense.

It's not just the tech things that are, what one would say, wasting philanthropic capital across the board. There's lots of people that give money to things, which in my opinion they probably shouldn't, but that's just my opinion and I can't really control that for other people sadly. But if you're offering that I could Rhodri, I'd be very happy to take up that sort of capricious autocrat role if I could.

It's just, one of the things that people really like about philanthropy or doing it, is that there isn't much external control. So what that means is it's really beholden on you to have a bit of self-control.

R: And I guess if you accept that the fundamental nature of philanthropy is voluntary and it's free decisions by individuals to decide to give away their private assets for public goods, then you have to take the rough with the smooth and accept that they won't always spend that on things that you agree with.

And I guess the questions are whether there are limits to that. On the examples like life extension technology and things like that, it's, maybe more about allowing people to be free to spend their money on that, but not allowing them to charecterise it as philanthropy. It needs to be characterised as self-interest or commercial investment.

E: Yes, that's true. It's a little bit like the whole art philanthropy scam. Maybe I shouldn't use the word scam, but I'm going to use it anyway. The whole art philanthropy scam in the US to buy a painting for a million dollars. Get some art valuer to say it's worth $10 million donate it to the Met Museum in New York as a 10 million donation. And bingo, by the time you get the tax back on that you've actually made money. That's, that's just a terrible thing, right? Who's losing money there? Actually the government. It's you stealing money from the government.

Philanthropists get a lot of support in some way from the state. Generally, charities are tax advantaged and donations are tax advantaged, so there is some obligation there to do the right thing because the state is funding, or at least supporting, philanthropic activities. Whether or not it should is another question. I'm not entirely sure I could make a coherent argument as to why charities should be tax advantaged.

R: I think the crucial point there is most governments when pressed can't generally make a clear case, it tends to be done on assumption.

E: It's also one of those policies, which is in practice, impossible to change. If I was the Chancellor to exchequer, and I stood up and said we're removing all of the tax advantages from every charity. The following day I would be out of a job and in newspapers would be covered with pictures of children with terrible diseases, lying in hospital beds saying “he's made me die”. To refer back to the previous thing, pictures of sad looking donkeys.

Yes, trying to change this is difficult, but I think it's important for philanthropists to realise that this support from the state is an obligation back to the state not to do outrageous, stupid things.

R: I think that's a great thought on which to leave things. Ewan it just remains say thanks ever so much for finding time to come on the podcast. It's been absolutely fascinating having a chance to talk and certainly wish you all the best with all of your future philanthropic efforts.

E: Thanks very much Rhodri it was a real joy to be able to talk about all this stuff and it's an ongoing project. All these things are, and I'm sure that, in a few years' time, I'll have slightly different views. But right now, this seems like the right thing to do at the right time.

R: Okay, great. Well, my thanks again to Ewan for finding time to come on the podcast. It was really great to have a chance to talk to him. I'll put links in the show notes to things that might be relevant and you might be interested in. If you're interested just more broadly in writing and podcasts and thoughts about philanthropy and civil society, do check out my website at whyphilanthropymatters.com, you can follow me on Twitter at @Rhodri_H_Davies or at @Philliteracy. There's also a Twitter account for this podcast, which I won't read out here, but I'm sure you can find it. You can find me on LinkedIn and YouTube and all those other sorts of places as well.


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