Tolstoy wrote a short book in 1884 about philanthropy ‘What then must we do?’ He felt inner turmoil; his life was idle luxury, different clothes for different functions, seasons and times of the day; hunting, winter, town, country, morning, and dinner, whereas the poor had nothing to wear, but the ill-fitting clothes in which they stoodwith scant regard if it were cold or hot.
He was particularly moved by the streams of people who made their way to Lyapin House, a night lodging, where these people slept as best they could. Tolstoy’s description of the conditions in which these people lived and in particular the stench with which they had to put up with, is moving.
We have all been similarly moved; the vacant stare of the child whose parents have gone missing in a civilian bombing or the distended belly of a starving child, who has not eaten in days and has no energy to wave off the flies which crowd his eyes.
Tolstoy’s wanted to help. He wanted his money to make a difference to those most in need. Much to his surprise his money could help very few, it would be spent quickly, alcohol, gambling pursuit of fanciful notions and then gone.
Tolstoy looked at ways to provide gainful employment. He took pity on a poor boy and invited him to work in his kitchen, thinking he would be grateful of the opportunity; the boy was gone within a week. he preferred to lead elephants in a parade rather than be at the beck and call of Tolstoy and his family.
Feeling impotent to help, but tormented by his privileged life, Tolstoy decided to share all he had with the poor, and to share in their labour. However, this idea did not go down well with his wife. She raged against him and even appealed to the Tzar; Tolstoy was deranged, he should not be allowed to make such gifts.
A compromise was reached, such that he would give his estate (which he had largely inherited from his father) to his wife and nine children as if he were dead. He gave up smoking and alcohol, wore peasant’s clothes and worked on the land, much to his wife’s chagrin.
It may be tempting to smile at history. But, the guilt of Tolstoy is not uncommon among wealthy people today. Many rich people feel the isolated by their wealth, forced to live with others who have and divided from those who have not, but do not know how they can make a difference.
Charities feed on this guilt. They offer the rich plentiful the opportunities to ‘gawp, give and go away’. They parade benefactors of their charity at fancy functions or show videos of the poor and destitute over charity dinners or anywhere else where these folk can learn how their money can make a difference.
What I find distressing is that less effort is spent saying thank you or in keeping donors appraised as to how their funds were spent; how many mosquito nets were used to save lives and how many were used as fishing nets, what proportion of the funds raised were used to help the victims of tsunami and what percentage was used for to build hotels, how much of the food bought got to the victims of famine and how much was left to rot on the side of the road.
As Machievelli accurately observed in the Prince, if a ruler wishes to influence his subjects in a foreign country he or his ambassador needs to live among them. This is what Tolstoy understood when he gave away his fortune to live and work amongst the poor.
Giving, to be effective, must incorporate good governance; people on the ground who are held to account to monitor, check and understand the people for whom the money the money is raised. Sadly spending money on infrastructure is often seen as wasteful, ‘feathering your own but without good governance money raised is in danger of being wasted at best or worse misappropriated.
When I set up ARK, (Absolute Return for Kids) for hedge fund managers included in the documentation was good governance; checks and balances. They work and are operated with rigour and discipline. Just as shareholders at an AGM hold the directors to account as to how they are running their business. So should donors should demand to know how and how much of their money is getting through to the cause, and if the results are good, not then to baulk at the costs of doing so.
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