Philanthropy funds community services as UK state support withers

Without the youth centre in Wigan, north-west England, Sam Lee knows where he would be.

“I’d have been sat in my room, suffering with a lot of anxiety,” said the 15-year-old, as nearby children scaled the club’s climbing wall and played pool. “This place has opened up my future.”

A shift in donor trends has meant British philanthropists are increasingly keen not to simply hand out donations but instead channel their wealth into grass roots projects that support communities, according to experts.

Although there has been a 10-year decline in giving generally, according to economists, there is evidence that among millionaires it is going up. Research from Pro Bono Economics, a consultancy for the charity sector, has found that the most generous 10 per cent of high-earner donors are responsible for three quarters or more of the total value of donations of their peers.

With public finances still tight and social inequality rising, ministers, meanwhile, are starting to notice the “untapped potential” of philanthropy. Meanwhile, those within the sector are calling for the state to take on a more formal role in it.  

OnSide is one of the modern networks of youth centres being funded by patrons searching as cash-strapped councils withdraw from directly providing such facilities.

The charity, which helps thousands of children across England, is rapidly expanding beyond its original roots in the north west. The concept behind it is that philanthropists provide a significant proportion of a new centre’s upfront and ongoing funding, while the council contributes part of the rest and usually the land. Children pay 50p a time.

Bill Holroyd, the Lake District-born entrepreneur who founded OnSide, said its approach was a “no-brainer”. “We have set out to prove the model works,” he said. 

Line chart of Donations declared by individuals completing UK self assessments, by tax year showing Number of donors has remained static but donation value has risen

While 760 council-run youth centres closed between 2010 and 2020, according to the YMCA, the OnSide centres are “all still open”, said Holroyd. “They’re all still thriving,” he added. 

As local council services continue to fold, there are signs that the government is starting to notice. 

Earlier this month culture secretary Lucy Frazer attended an event organised by the philanthropic network Made in Stoke, which encourages wealthy people raised in the Staffordshire manufacturing town to give back to local projects. 

There remains “untapped potential within our philanthropy sector”, she said, adding the government wanted to “maximise” that. 

“That’s why we’re actively looking at ways we can expand, enable and encourage more philanthropic activity,” she said. 

Nicole Sykes, director of policy and communications at the consultancy ProBono Economics, said the culture department, the Office for Investment and the sector regulator the Charity Commission have begun to make the topic more of a priority. 

“There are signs,” she added, “that the government now thinks ‘this is important and we want to put resource into it’.” 

Holroyd was inspired to set up OnSide in his early 40s after selling his food services company Holroyd Meek to the distribution giant Booker. A visit to an existing youth centre, Bolton Lads and Girls Club, inspired him to become chair of the enterprise before concluding the model could be expanded to other towns.

“Initially it was me opening my address book and asking them to support me very modestly,” he said of approaching wealthy contacts. “And it got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Since then, OnSide has opened 13 more centres in disadvantaged areas, including three in London, with seven more in the pipeline.

Jason Stockwood, chair of the Horizon Youth Zone board in Grimsby, had already been thinking about the erasure of local institutions when he met Holroyd at a dinner around six years ago.

Line chart of Proportion of total amount donated received by each cause (%) showing Overseas aid and animal welfare receive greater share of donations

A self-made tech entrepreneur from the Lincolnshire port, Stockwood believes that, although capitalism had been an “aggregate” success in terms of global poverty, in his home town something had been lost. 

“I had an opportunity as an entrepreneur,” he added. “I was struck by the fact I had to do something active and build something.”

Stockwood has helped to lead the set up of OnSide’s Grimsby centre and has also bought the town’s football club. He said any such institution had to be a partnership between private citizens and government.

“There’s a real role for the state,” he said, “but we need to ensure individuals step into that — and particularly those who have had a degree of luck in their lives.”

National donation trends are nonetheless mixed. Sykes pointed to a “10-year decline in people giving”, including among high earners, but “some evidence that among millionaires, it’s gone up”. That has led to a “generous core” giving “more and more”.

“This reflects a trend we often see in the broader population regarding civic engagement, specifically the ‘civic core’ — the 9 per cent of the people responsible for around 66 per cent of charitable activity.”

“There’s a huge voice within the philanthropic sector saying ‘how do you do it in a way that you don’t impose it top-down’,” said Sykes.

Youth provision is not currently a statutory government service “and it 110 per cent should be”, he said. 

Gemma Unsworth
Gemma Unsworth: ‘Without the support of this youth centre I don’t know where I’d be’ © Jon Super/FT

While local government has been “brilliant” often funding up to 40 per cent of the running costs of the centres in recent years, the overall picture is “too hit and miss”, he added.

For some, the youth centres have literally been a lifesaver. 

Like Sam, 19-year-old Gemma Unsworth arrived at the Wigan Youth Zone as an eight-year-old. A carer for her siblings while still in primary school, she was skipping lessons and struggling to concentrate.

“Without the support of this youth centre I don’t know where I’d be,” said Gemma, who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD as a result of her time talking to mentors at the Youth Zone. 

She will soon start there as an apprentice. The centre has saved lives, she said, adding: “It’s definitely saved mine.”

Additional reporting by Janina Conboye in London


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