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The Network for Social Change: Philanthropy the collective way
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Financial Times, 2006
There are plenty of places to turn for advice in managing wealth. There are rather fewer choices open to you if you want to discuss the best ways of giving your money away.
There is, however, one organisation which over the last twenty years has been providing an informal space to do just that. The hundred or so members of the Network for Social Change meet twice yearly for residential long weekends, between them pledging close to a million pounds a year in donations for jointly-agreed projects. The Network, as it is known, also serves another role, in providing a supportive environment in which the ethical and practical implications of being rich can be discussed.
The weekend ‘Conferences' are, members say, are intensely stimulating and rewarding. Attendance is not open to all, however. To become a member, you need to have several hundred thousand pounds in assets (the value of your home doesn't count), and to commit to giving away at least £3000 a year through the Network. Definitions of ‘social change' vary between members, but the Network typically supports initiatives in areas such as human rights, the environment, arts and health, and economic justice. The emphasis is on newer, less mainstream, projects which the Network can help become established. The Network was instrumental, for example, in establishing the debt relief campaign which later became Jubilee 2000.
Peter Miller, a director of the transport technology business ItoWorld Ltd, has become active in the Network since he sold his stake in the successful transport business Acis last year. He talks of the benefits of discussing with others how money can best be used, and says he found his first encounter with the Network very straightforward. “It felt like something I was familiar with, and it was structured – it was clear what was expected of you,” he says.
His own particular interests include environmental concerns, particularly linked to the social implications of transport. Some things which are worthwhile, he says, make money. The Network helps him support other ventures, those which don't make money “but which need to happen”.
The Network does not accept unsolicited requests for help. Instead, members themselves put up proposals during the Conference weekend, which are normally subject to subsequent assessment by other Network members and discussed again at a second Conference. “We're looking for leverage, where a relatively small amount of money can have a ripple effect, and where there is some opportunity for replication,” says Prue Hardwick, a long-time Network member and current Treasurer for the group. There is a rule, she adds, that members don't only support their own pet projects.
Whilst it is clear that some members choose to give significantly more than the £3000 minimum through the Network, the size of each member's donations is a private matter. “The Network has a dual function. It's about giving money away, but it also provides a forum for people who have money, where this can be safely and confidentially discussed,” Prue Hardwick says. “Issues can be discussed in Network which you can't discuss in a pub – or perhaps with family or friends.”
The Network for Social Change brings together both entrepreneurs like Peter Miller who have made their money in business and those who have inherited wealth. Corin Stuart, for example, became rich from inherited family wealth by the time he was in his mid-twenties. Now thirty, he describes his first involvement with the Network as a “liberating” experience, in helping him reconcile his wealth with his beliefs. “I definitely had feelings of guilt and embarrassment. To be able to talk freely was quite a revelation,” he says. The Network's origin in the mid-1980s, in fact, was a newsletter circulated among inheritors tussling with issues such as these, and Network Conferences continue to make time for structured group discussions. One recent Conference session, for example, explored the implications for relationships of being single and having money. Another frequent topic for debate concerns wills, and in particular the amount of money which it is appropriate to leave for one's children.
“People in Network tend to be articulate and to think quite deeply about things,” Prue Hardwick says. Those who attend include a mixture of single people, individuals in relationships who have come without their partners, and couples, with some children also being brought along. Although there are exceptions like Corin Stuart, the majority are in the 40+ age group, a reflection perhaps that some of the initial members are now twenty years older than when the Network started.
Despite its evident success and the fact that about £10m has been donated since it first began, the Network for Social Change deliberately operates in a low-profile way, partly to protect its members' privacy. Potential new members are invited to make contact via its email address, firstname.lastname@example.org
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