Last year was notable for a distressing spate of celebrity deaths from the worlds of music, film, sport and more. But George Michael’s premature death on Christmas Day sparked an outpouring, not just of grief, but also of revelations about the star’s covert and sizeable charitable giving. Newspapers carried reports that his lifelong philanthropy had only just “come to light” and a series of stories emerged on social media from people who now felt the time was right to reveal the singer’s good deeds.
We have learned that he made donations of five figures or more to charities including Comic Relief, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Help a London Child and Childline. He volunteered and fundraised for Macmillan Cancer Support, disaster relief funds and a homeless shelter. He made spontaneous gifts to individuals in need, including £15,000 to a Deal or No Deal contestant who needed the money to pay for IVF treatment and a £5,000 tip to a student nurse struggling with debt. And in 2006 he gave a free concert at London’s Roundhouse for nurses, in thanks for care received by him and his family.
This is a heartwarming legacy that has rightly won widespread praise. But how unusual was the scale and nature of the singer’s giving? Without wishing to minimise the importance of philanthropic role models, or to be churlish about the amounts given, the recent flourishing of research on charitable giving and philanthropy in the UK shows that Michael’s acts were admirable but by no means unique.
The annual UK giving survey (pdf) shows that every year a majority of the population (67%) makes charitable donations, which collectively amount to around £10bn. The nation’s most popular causes overlap to a large degree with those favoured by Michael: cancer, hospitals and young people.
It is difficult to make comparisons with the amounts given, as most people give out of their income whereas the super-rich donate from their wealth. But the median donation size of £14 a month, if given by a person earning an average salary of £26,000, is worth roughly 0.65% of their income. Someone with a net worth of £105m would need to give away more than £500,000 a year to match the relative generosity of the ordinary donor, who of course is not benefiting from compound interest on savings and still has to worry about paying the mortgage and other regular outgoings.
Michael gave his time as well as his money, which is commendable but again not unusual. Government data shows that four in 10 of us do formal volunteering each year, and this number rises to around two-thirds when informal volunteering (helping neighbours and the community rather than volunteering with a registered charity) is included.
Four in 10 ten of us do formal volunteering each year, rising to two-thirds when informal volunteering is included
The final alleged distinctive feature of Michael’s philanthropy is that it was secret. The extent of anonymous giving is, by definition, difficult to assess. But a study of rich donors in the UK that I conducted with Theresa Lloyd in 2013, found that a majority (69%) did some of their giving anonymously. Reasons for doing so ranged from a practical desire to protect privacy and not be “inundated” with subsequent appeals, to beliefs that anonymous giving is morally better in all or some situations. Donors might be willing, for example, to attach their name to a national arts organisation in order to encourage others to give, but prefer to donate secretly to their local food bank out of respect for their neighbours’ dignity. Michael’s philanthropy was also a mixture of private and public acts; some of his charitable efforts received significant coverage at the time, including his 2006 free concert for NHS nurses.
So why did the media choose to overlook evidence that not all his charity was done in secret? And more intriguingly, why do we seem to prefer to interpret his behaviour as unique when charitable work is commonplace among celebrities, as this website tracking celebrity charity news attests? To take just a couple of recent examples: Stand Up to Cancer raised over £15m in October 2016 with the help of some of the country’s biggest comedy names, while the last Children in Need appeal leveraged much of the nation’s top star power to raise almost £50m on one day in November. Indeed, no major charitable appeal, from the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy day to Movember to the Marie Curie Daffodil appeal is complete without a sprinkling of celebrities to attract media coverage and encourage their fans to get on board.
Given this plethora of commonplace celebrity support for charities, why is it so often heralded in obituaries?
My research on UK media coverage has uncovered a pattern of more positive references to historic philanthropists and recently deceased donors. An analysis of a year’s worth of media coverage found that a fifth appeared either in obituaries or in references to long-dead donors, such as Andrew Carnegie.
This quantitative evidence is backed up by qualitative research: in a study of rich donors one interviewee plaintively asks:
Why are the media nasty? They don’t do good news, they are snide and they pander to jealousy. The obituaries of philanthropists are nice but during their lifetime journalists dig. There’s nothing to be done.
Such media representations are probably a fair representation of public attitudes to philanthropy. While some donations are undoubtedly altruistic in intent and anonymous by design, there is widespread ambivalence about donors’ motives. When philanthropic acts by living donors are reported in the press, many commentators are quick to suggest that tax breaks and reputational gains are the true drivers behind the gift.
The coverage of Michael’s philanthropy seems to suggest that he is no exception to the rule that as far as the media is concerned, the best donor is a dead donor.
Beth Breeze is director of the Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent
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