Opinion: Contributing to social capital

Sir Elton John donated �24.1 million in 2015.
Sir Elton John donated �24.1 million in 2015.

Ever wondered what the seriously rich do with their money? If you earn more in your Christmas bonus than many of us managed in a lifetime, what do you do with it all?

With the explosion of prosperity generated by the Industrial Revolution, Nineteenth Century entrepreneurs first made sure their families were comfortable, but they also used their money for the benefit of others.

Famous names like Sir Titus Salt (and what a name that is) and Sir Henry Tate contributed to civic pride through architecture, libraries and art galleries.

Here in Scarborough, we can boast the name of Mary Craven who financed the building of St Martin’s Church with its William Morris interior. Today, some might say that building churches is not productive, but that is not the point. Mary Craven wanted to use her money for the good of the community.

So who are the big earners of today whose wealth could benefit others?

How are Premier League footballers and highly paid entertainers, for example, returning some of the cash we put into their pockets?

As you can probably tell from the tone of that last question, I was cynical about what the answer might be. I suspected that the jobs of car makers in Germany and Italy might be the chief beneficiaries.

However, the reality is not as I would have expected. No one matches the fortune that Lord David Sainsbury donates every year (£203.2 million in 2015), but there is a substantial list of individuals who clearly have a social conscience.

Chief among them is Sir Elton John (£24.1 million donated in 2015). One Direction have also made substantial contributions, as have Coldplay.

Names selected from people in sport include Steven Gerrard, Louis van Gaal and golfer Justin Rose.

However, the focus for their donations tends to be causes such as medical research or educational campaigns. The contrast with philanthropists of the 19th century is clear: there are few contributing to what we might call capital projects.

Sir Henry Tate, though a modest man, demanded that a gallery be built to house his collection of paintings when he donated them to the nation. The result is the Tate Galleries that we have today.

Perhaps buildings and statues look too much like vanity projects for the modern philanthropist, but they are a contribution to our social capital. In this respect, I, for one, would like to see more of a 19th century attitude to giving.