Although I am a patron of several excellent organisations, I have only recently set up my own charitable bodies. So I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute this article to Philanthropy UK.
I firmly believe that few things are more important to a just society, and the flourishing of its members, than a strong and feisty charitable sector.
While I was Prime Minister I saw the voluntary sector‘s huge power for good. And we, the government, tried our best to support volunteering and the third sector and, at the least, not to get too much in its way. Without the efforts of charities, faith groups, social entrepreneurs and voluntary bodies great and small, British life would be poorer, less cohesive and less free. For as well as helping those who need help, the very existence of a strong voluntary sector is a crucial check on a potentially overweening state.
Since I left office I’ve enjoyed the freedom to develop, hands-on, some of my own ideas in this field and put them into practice.
First, I have set up a Sports Foundation in the North East, to give something back to the region which supported me as an MP. It makes small grants to adults so that they can train as coaches or referees, thus expanding the opportunities for children to play sport. I’ve learnt from this the amazing power that even £30 or £40 can have in enabling an adult to get stuck in and thus open up a world of sport to kids who might otherwise never have experienced it.
Secondly, there’s work on climate change: Breaking the Climate Deadlock. We almost all acknowledge now that climate change is one of the world’s biggest challenges. If we don’t find an answer, millions will suffer and our planet will be irrevocably altered for the worst. We need to focus on solutions that are both technically and politically feasible. That’s what my group of experts is working hard to do.
Thirdly, I have been pursuing work on governance in Africa, building on my long-standing interest in that great continent. I’m collaborating with President Kagame of Rwanda to develop better ways of working at the heart of the Rwandan government and to attract private investment. I hope to expand this to another African country soon.
And fourthly, I’ve launched a Faith Foundation So much philanthropic effort has a religious motive. Helping others is a central tenet for every major religion, and countless voluntary groups are rooted in their members’ faith. So I regret that public perception of religion is often negative. I want to help faiths work more closely together for the common good and to counter the bleak image of religion that many people have. And I want to help encourage a greater understanding of faith, and its power for good, in this globalised world, where more and more people of different faiths live side by side and need to do so with trust and mutual comprehension. Those who said that religion was becoming an irrelevance have been proved wrong. If decision-makers don’t understand the power of religion, then many of their decisions will be faulty.
These four very different bodies have prompted me to think about some core issues common to each of them – and perhaps to any ‘start-up’ in the voluntary sector.
Where can you, with your resources, skills and interests, most make a difference? For example, I hope I can bring some added profile and political nous to my organisations’ work.
When you’ve decided where you can add value, recognise that many people are probably doing good work already in the same area so don’t think that you’ll be the one who’ll provide the Eureka moment.
Therefore look for partnerships and synergy - with those active in other charities, and those whom you’re setting out to help.
Whatever you decide to do, bring passion and commitment to it. They’ll have spin-offs in terms of creativity and drawing others in.
Develop a strategy and plug away at it. But also be flexible and seize new opportunities. Some say the aim of any charity is to do itself out of a job. I’m not sure that’s universally true. There will almost always be new needs. So try to stay ahead of the game.
Even if the work is complex, keep your aims as simple as possible. That will maximise others’ involvement.
Finally, comparing my old and new worlds, I’d say that in philanthropy, unlike politics most of the time, you can genuinely welcome others alongside you. Ultimately in politics you have to set up hard choices between yourself and your opponents. In the charitable world, whilst I know there are sometimes deep differences about the best way forward, more often than not there will be the warmest of welcomes for anyone wanting to contribute to a common endeavour.
Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997-2007.
(from Giving back with passion and commitment by Tony Blair Philanthropy UK Newsletter, June 2008)