Big Society Charity: Capitalist Philanthropy in the UK

By Michael Barker
October 16, 2012

Philanthropy we are told is to replace the British welfare state: thus instead of attempting to redistribute wealth via taxation and democratic planning, austerity politicians are in the process of dispatching with what they view as an irritating relic of working class history. In its place we are informed that we should rely upon the charity of the greediest and most exploitative subset of society, our country’s leading capitalists. A group of individuals whose psychological temperament is best described as psychopathic rather than altruistic. [1]

While many corporate executives may well have numerous commendable personal traits, their commitment to pursuing their own class interests necessarily means that they must master the means to mask their illegitimate power and actively encourage a sense of futility amongst the governed. The creation of non-profit corporations, otherwise known as philanthropic foundations, thereby serve a critical function for powerful elites – letting them distance themselves from their psychopathic for-profit offspring, and allowing capitalists to recast themselves as good Samaritans striving to work for the common good.

Humans like to help one another, but under capitalism such activities are curtailed somewhat, not least by the ill-serving doctrine of rampant competition that is incessantly rammed down our throats. Nevertheless humans continue to work together, and usually try their best to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Capitalists correctly see any such displays of solidarity as a meaningful threat to their ongoing exploitation of the working class. So the ruling class strives to ensure that mutual aid is constrained to the dictates of capital. This involves actively encouraging trade union bosses who serve the capitalists’ own narrow self-interests, and ensuring that charitable activities are largely contained within a world of corporatized organisations – perpetuating the capitalist system that causes the problems that both unions and charities seemingly seek to redress.

Profiting from Privatisation

Whilst David Cameron’s “Big Society” is the latest manifestation of capitalist attempts to regulate good-will, such capital-friendly ideas of ‘community’ have a long pedigree amongst liberals. Take for example David Astor, the long-standing editor of The Observer (1948-1975) who prided himself on being a dedicated opponent of trade unions. Contrary to the supportive role provided by immensely popular working class newspapers like the Daily Herald, Astor used his own paper as a bully-pit from which he actively attacked workers for daring to collectively defend their economic rights. His preference was that workers organise in any way but through trade unions. To facilitate this organisational shift Astor founded all manner of allegedly apolitical organisations to promote the nebulous concept of “human rights” as a stand in for economic rights. Some of the better known of these human rights groups include Amnesty International and various prison reform organizations like the Longford Charitable Trust, the Butler Trust and the Koestler Trust.

None of this should cast doubt on the commitment and dedication of the many good people who work and/or volunteer for such charitable organisations. It is simply that many of the charitable organisations that currently exist under capitalism are intent on emulating the newly reformed Labour Party. That is, they have little or no internal democracy, and work to undermine, not strengthen working class interests. In this way, the ruling class has helped nurture what many authors have amorphously referred to as a non-profit industrial complex. This newly emergent non-profit industrial complex forms a “natural corollary” to the profit system, “manag[ing] and control[ling] dissent by incorporating itself into the state apparatus, functioning as a ‘shadow state’ constituted by a network of institutions that do much of what government agencies are supposed to do with tax money in the areas of education and social services.” [2]

The Charity Business

Under the current bipartisan ideological onslaught masquerading as the “Big Society”, philanthropy in itself is now a big and highly profitable business. Tens of thousands of individuals are employed in this booming industry whose very growth is dependent upon the axing of much-needed public services. Yet this philanthropic sector is hardly new, and can trace its institutional history to the charity organisations of the nineteenth century. In fact to this day, the Charity Organization Societies that were initially formed in 1869 continue to be used as a misleading “institutional model to illustrate the alleged advantages of voluntarism over state benefits.” [3] A model of manipulation that was quickly exported to the United States. In time these charity societies found their replacement through the institutionalisation of philanthropy in the form of dedicated foundations, which were quickly used as a weapon of capitalist reform against a militant and increasingly socialist working class. [4]

For the past several decades the pro-capitalist ideology guiding the foundation-world has been gaining the ears of the rich and powerful in the UK, and its historical lessons are being reintegrated into the British ruling classes war against life. Groups at the forefront of this educative endeavour are numerous but perhaps the most significant is the Association of Charitable Foundations, which was set up in 1989, with grants given by their members amounting to £1.2 billion in 2005 alone. A former senior executive at private equity company 3i plc, John Kingston, is the current chairman of the Association of Charitable Foundations, a position of authority he bolsters through serving as a board member of David Cameron’s recently launched Big Society Capital. Kingston is supported at the Association by his vice chair, Sara Llewellin, who is the chief executive of the leading liberal foundation – ostensibly committed to funding and encouraging the promotion of social justice – the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

With the Association of Charitable Foundations being of fairly recent origin, an apt forerunner in the UK should be seen as the Charities Aid Foundation. This Foundation was formed in 1924 as the Charities Department of the National Council of Social Service in order to encourage efficiency in charitable giving. In 1959, the Charities Department changed its name to become what is now known as the Charities Aid Fund (CAF); while the National Council of Social Service itself is now called the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. In late 2010, Dominic Casserley, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company became CAF’s chairman, only retiring from his position as the chairman of the major British charity Action on Addiction in 2012. Casserley’s predecessor at CAF was the former chief executive at the London-based investment bank SG Warburg & Company, Lord Cairns; while CAF’s current chief executive is John Low, an individual who in recent months stepped down from his position as the chairman of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) – the professional body for the third sector’s usually overpaid chief executives. Low also serves alongside the aforementioned Sara Llewellin on the board of trustees of Charity Bank, an organisation which helps financial investors “facilitate real social change” (allegedly). The type of social change being facilitated equates with activities that enable and empower the ongoing privatisation of public services, something that ACEVO chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb is certainly familiar with given the recently revealed key role he is fulfilling in the ongoing privatisation of the NHS.

The close relationship between capitalist enemies of public services and the promoters of voluntary work should come as no surprise. And a key addition to the ruling classes armory in their efforts to undermine the welfare provisions of the state is Dartington Hall Trust’s School for Social Entrepreneurs. This “School” was founded in 1997 by Michael Young, a former Director of the pro-capitalist Political and Economic Planning think tank, who is best known as being the man who coined the phrase “social entrepreneur.” [5] Funding for this project came from HSBC Holdings plc, the National Lottery Charities Board and the Esmée Fairbairn Charitable Trust.

The School for Social Entrepreneurs’ founding chairman was the late James Cornford (1935-2011), who just prior to his death acted as the chair of Dartington Hall Trust, having been a policy wonk for the ruling class for decades (Cornford previously serving as the founding Director (1989-94) of the New Labour think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research – the very group that helped provide the intellectual fodder to allow the Labour Party to dispatch with its working-class roots). Another significant trustee of the School for Social Entrepreneurs is Vaughan Lindsay, who became the CEO of Dartington Hall Trust in 2004 after leaving an illustrious career in the corporate world, where he had most recently worked for healthcare privatizer McKinsey & Company. Notably the current chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research is James Purnell, who recently served as a board member of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. Blue Labour operative Purnell, presently acts as a senior advisor for the world’s leading advisor on business strategy, Boston Consulting Group, and is a trustee of Citizens UK – a group whose stated “goal is to increase the power of communities to participate in public life.” Dismantling the welfare state being one way sure fire way in which to force increased public participation in public life.

Yet instead of asking citizens to strengthen democracy by participating in political decision-making (not simply ratifying elite policies) the ruling class have just the opposite in mind. For instance, with the ongoing dismemberment of the NHS, caring for the elderly will become a major preoccupation for many otherwise work stressed families. But another envisaged role for “Big Society” citizens will require they spend their leisure time volunteering in a never-ending bid to tidy up in the environmentally destructive wake of our increasingly deregulated corporate sector. One example of a leading charitable body coordinating such activities is the Conservation Volunteers (formerly BCTV), whose head, Tom Flood, is of course counted as a board member of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. To make this hard-sell to the public the Conservation Volunteers rely upon their chair, Rita Clifton, who is the chair of leading propaganda purveyor Interbrand (which is part of Omnicom Group, the world’s third-largest advertising conglomerate). Additionally, Mrs. Clifton can attain further help in such matters by drawing upon her fellow trustees at the free-market conservation giant WWF, and from her welfare-hating buddies serving alongside her on the board room of private healthcare provider, BUPA.

On top of this the vice presidents of Conservation Volunteers reads like a who’s who of the most influential corporate environmentalists, notable individuals including neo-Malthusian green warriors like David Attenborough and Jonathon Porritt (who are both patrons of Population Matters, formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust). Another noteworthy vice president is the former Commander of the London Metropolitan Police force turned Labour peer Baroness Hilton of Eggardon; which brings us neatly to another dubious charity known as SOVA (the Society of Voluntary Associates), a group whose president prior to 2009 was none other than Baroness Hilton.

SOVA’s Ineffectual Soma

And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering.

— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.

SOVA (the Society of Voluntary Associates) was formed in 1975 by a group of volunteers working within the Inner London Probation Service. Apparently they currently work “in the heart of communities in England and Wales to help people steer clear of crime” – that is at least according to their mission statement. Yet this is not all SOVA do, and David Cameron’s talk of the need for a “Big Society” has apparently had an effect on SOVA, as earlier this year they stepped up to the Tories’ mark by forming a highly profitable side-project named SOVA Recycling Ltd. In February 2012, the newly minted SOVA Recycling thus became the subcontractor to manage five Household Waste Recycling Centres in Sheffield. Allowing the city’s primary waste services contractor, the multinational Veolia, to profit handsomely by sub-contracting their council sub-contract out to SOVA Recycling: which was part of a costly privatisation scheme that was first brought in by a Liberal Democrat council and is now strongly supported by a Labour council.

Workers at SOVA Recycling however, are not profiting from privatisation, despite the fact that the services they render are vital for Sheffield and actually turn a tidy profit for both Veolia and SOVA Recycling. So while the recycling workers only receive minimum wage, SOVA Recycling claim that they are being “forced” by the financial crisis to attack their workers’ pay and conditions. Wise to such newspeak, and determined that they would not personally pay for a financial crisis that has been caused by bankers, the workers, organized in GMB union, took 28 days of strike against the cuts. This was then followed by a painful two months of ‘talks’ (with management) which collapsed and ended up with the determined workers being forced back on strike in September 2012 – with the workers concerns remaining unresolved at the time of writing.

As noted previously, prior to 2009 Baroness Hilton served as the president of SOVA, but since then she has been replaced by another all-round do-gooder, the Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, Baroness Linklater of Butterstone. In the early 1980s Baroness Linklater had helped found the aforementioned Butler Trust (of which she is now a patron), and she currently serves on the advisory board of the Koestler Trust. In addition she is a board member of one of the largest independent grant-making foundations in the UK, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. This liberal foundation distributes around £35 million per annum, and their web site notes: “Our aim is to improve the quality of life for people and communities in the UK both now and in the future. We do this by supporting organisations that work in the arts, education and learning, the environment, and social change.”

Such nice-sounding claims should be taken with a large dose of salt. The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, like other elite-run liberal philanthropies, is simply there to help patch over some of the many glaring inequalities caused by capitalism. Systemic solutions like those proposed by socialists are strictly off-limits. This helps explain why a recent addition to the foundation’s board room has been Sir David Bell, the former chairman of the Financial Times (1999-2009). Likewise it is immensely appropriate that the chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Dawn Austwick, has just been made a board member of Big Society Capital.

Launched in April 2012, Big Society Capital is a £600 million financial institution that was established to develop and shape a sustainable social investment market in the UK. The main man behind this workers’ nightmare is Sir Ronald Cohen, a private equity guru who also spends time as a trustee of the war-mongering International Institute for Strategic Studies, which was cofounded in the late 1950s by right-wing Labour Party operative, Denis Healey. In the context of this chapter, one particularly noteworthy adviser to Big Society Capital is businessman-turned-community worker, Matthew Bowcock, who is presently the chair of the Community Foundation Network. This Network is currently headed by the former banker and chief executive of the Christian relief and development charity (Tearfund) and the Network describes itself as a “charity that leads a movement of community foundations committed to positive social change in the UK through the development of ‘community philanthropy’.”

A fellow member of the Community Foundation Network’s board of trustees is Rob Williamson, who is the chief executive of the similarly named Community Foundation, which is based in Newcastle. This charitable group brings us back to SOVA, as for the past six years the vice president of the Community Foundation has been Mike Worthington, who until recently was the chairman of SOVA’s board of directors. Worthington like so many of his elitist colleagues who like to “help” the poor is a member of quite a few “Big Society”-styled programs. He is thus the former chairman, now patron, of Tyneside Cyrenians, a group that attempts to integrate socially excluded people back into society; where he serves alongside fellow prison “reformer” Lord Ramsbotham (who works with the both the Longford Charitable Trust and the Koestler Trust).

Between 1994 and 1997 Lord Ramsbotham was the director of international affairs for the private military corporation Defence Systems Ltd, a firm that he founded in 1981 and then staffed with former members of the SAS (who of course had been trained to great skill at the tax payers expense). In 1997, the year that Defence Systems was purchased by Armor Holdings and became ArmorGroup, senior staffer Major-General Stephen Carr-Smith told a British reporter:

Who are the sorts of people that would be our clients? Petrochemical companies, mining or mineral extraction companies and their subsidiaries, multinationals, banks, embassies, non-governmental organizations, national and international organizations. Those people who operate in a very dodgy, hostile type of environment.

With no sense of irony Lord Ramsbotham currently serves alongside former leader of the Conservative Party Iain Duncan Smith as a patron of the Wave Trust, a group allegedly “dedicated to making the world safer by reducing the root causes of violence, including child abuse and neglect.” The Wave Trust counts New Labour ideologue Geoff Mulgan among their advisors, a man who amongst his other community-service duties acts as a board member of Big Society Capital. Mulgan is perhaps most famous for being the founder of the New Labour think tank, Demos, but is also the former chief executive of Michael Young’s self-named Young Foundation.

SOVA’s “Workfare” Scheme in Sheffield

To add to the ridicule and contempt that should be rightly heaped upon the capitalists who (mis) manage SOVA, it is sickening to read that in Sheffield one of SOVA’s many ways to aid “long term unemployed people” is through their SOVA Work Programme. A programme which is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, via fellow service providers, G4S (formerly Group 4 Securicor), SERCO and A4e (Action for Employment). It is strange to say the least that SOVA, who like to think that they are helping ex-offenders, has chosen to ally itself with G4S and SERCO – these being two multinational corporations that derive their massive profits from ever-increasing incarceration rates. Here one should observe that G4S is now one of the top private military (“security”) firms in the world and counts the aforementioned ArmorGroup (of Lord Ramsbotham fame) amongst its many profitable subsidiaries.

The background of SOVA’s second work programme partner, SERCO, like G4S makes for unsavoury reading, and they are considered to be amongst the key corporate vultures in the ongoing privatisation of the NHS. It is appropriate to note here that in the not so distant past, current A4e board member, Jo Blundell, spent 10 years with SERCO where she focused on developing business in SERCO’s markets in Health, Local Government, Education and Facilities Management.

Desperate to correct the public’s perception of ruling class elites as fat cat capitalists, in recent years business leaders have been lining up to advertise their humanitarianism by starring in Channel 4′s popular fly-on-the wall show, The Secret Millionaire, a series that shows capitalists crying at others misfortune and then making amends by giving their money away; with one recent episode devoted to the founder of A4e, Emma Harrison. Fat cat Harrison however recently had her comeuppance, and in February 2012 was forced to resign from the chairmanship of A4e and from her position as David Cameron’s personal adviser on problem families. This was in the wake of her firm being investigated over allegations of multiple fraud. As the Daily Mirror reported in February:

Former Work and Pensions Minister Margaret Hodge even went so far as to describe Harrison’s dividend as ‘ripping off the State’ and has urged ministers to suspend all work with A4e. Now four ex-employees at her company are at the centre of a series of fraud investigations. But none of this has stopped A4e from being named this week as the preferred bidder for a £15 million Government contract to rehabilitate prisoners in London. [6]

Luckily for Harrison, amid all this controversy she can still retire to her twenty bedroom Gothic Mansion, hang out with her “green” friends on the board of trustees of the mining industry-public relations enterprise that is known somewhat idyllically as the Eden Project; or alternatively drown her sorrows in the cosy confines of her husband’s range of traditional and contemporary pubs to be found scattered across Sheffield. The same escape options are not of course available for the employees at Sova Recycling who, even prior to going on strike, were struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage. Nor are such comforts an option for the thousands of the unemployed individuals currently being forced to work for free through A4e’s much protested against workfare programmes. One would be forgiven for thinking that the slave-like work schemes currently forced upon prisoners themselves are actually being rolled out to free citizens as well!

It is interesting to note that the long-standing civil servant who was chosen to replace Emma Harrison as the chair of A4e earlier this year is Sir Robin Young. Young is the chairman of Dr Foster Intelligence, a mysterious company which pioneered the publication of patient outcomes in health care, a process that has facilitated the ongoing dismantling of the NHS. Indeed, in reward for their good efforts, in 2011 Dr Foster’s cofounder Tim Kelsey was named ‘Reformer of the year’ by the influential right-wing think tank, Reform. Finally, another significant board member of A4e is Sheffield businessman, Sir Hugh Sykes, who serves on the advisory council of the free-market think tank, Politeia. Unfortunately for the British public, in 1998 Sykes wrote a pamphlet for Politeia titled “Welfare to Work – The New Deal: Maximising the Benefits.”

A fellow member of Politeia’s advisory council is right-wing Labour Party MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, whose reactionary plans to reform the benefits system were too radical even for Tony Blair to stomach. [7] Field’s background is worth reviewing because until recently he served as a board member of the neoconservative Centre for Social Cohesion. Field also currently sits on advisory boards of both Reform and the military think tank Global Strategy Forum: where on the latter he sits alongside Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is chairman of the NHS vulture, Alliance Medical Ltd, and the former chairman of ArmorGroup (ring any bells). In spite of, or perhaps because of, his antiquated views on immigration, in 2007 Frank Field cofounded an environmental group known as Cool Earth, which promotes an explicitly free-market approach to social change. His cofounder was Johan Eliasch, the president of the Global Strategy Forum, and advisor to Iain Duncan Smith’s misnamed Centre for Social Justice; while the man chosen to head up this project formerly served as the director of equity research for the banking behemoth Morgan Stanley.

Connecting Yet More Dots

As if this chapter did not already provide enough evidence of the cynical means by which the British ruling class gloss over their prided role in perpetuating class warfare, this section summarizes the interconnected nature of some of the many organisations examined so far. To start with recall one Sara Llewellin, the vice chair of the Association of Charitable Foundations. In an earlier part of her glittering career Llewellin served as the chief executive of the St Giles Trust, a group that began life in 1962 as the ‘Camberwell Samaritans,’ adopted HRH Prince William as a patron in 2012, and works like many of the prison care groups introduced already. Current St Giles trustee, Lady Louise Gibbings, has been employed within the criminal justice system for years, and in addition to working for SOVA, she is the founder of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust – a group whose patrons serve in similar capacities for the Longford Trust, Koestler Trust, and the Butler Trust. Another of their patrons is married to Lord David Puttnam whose connections to groups discussed in this chapter include serving as a board member of Channel 4, a trustee of both the Eden Project and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Next up is Big Society Capital advisor, Cliff Prior, who is the chief executive of UnLtd – The Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs. Here one of the key groups involved in forming UnLtd in 2000 was Michael Young’s School for Social Entrepreneurs. Former Goldman Sachs banker and now Young Foundation chairman, Peter Wheeler, serves as an UnLtd advisor, and formerly served as the chairman of the Futurebuilders Fund, which describes itself as the UK’s largest social investor. The current chairman of Futurebuilders is ACEVO chief executive Sir Stephen Bubb, while fellow Futurebuilders trustee and former banker Rupert Evenett is the recent chair of Conservation Volunteers. Here one might note that Conservation Volunteer trustee, and yes you guessed it former banker, Sir Hugh Sykes, is a board member of A4e. Finally, serial entrepreneur Rajeeb Dey is a UnLtd trustee, a Commissioner on the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, and a trustee of Michael Young’s Esmée Fairbairn Foundation-funded Phoenix Education Trust. Alice Astor, the daughter of David Astor, is the chair of the Phoenix Education Trust.

Finally, UnLtd cofounder Michael Norton is something of a social entrepreneur guru himself and has founded all manner of voluntary group such as the Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action, which is chaired by Big Society Capital advisor Stephen Lloyd. As head of the Charity and Social Enterprise Department of the leading charitable law firm, Bates Wells and Braithwaite, Lloyd has worked on financing for the Eden Project. While such twisting connections are certainly hard to follow and even more difficult to keep track of, what is certain is that they demonstrate the tightly interwoven network of charitable concerns governed by members of the British ruling class. The absence of a critical literature that deals with such matters in Britain should be highly concerning and needs to be rectified with some urgency.

It is perhaps fitting that while on the one hand the ruling class happily incarcerate countless millions of members of the working class, when it comes to their charitable work they likewise exert energy (albeit lesser amounts) rehabilitating the victims of the class war. With ruling elites now making vast profits from the privatisation of prisons and spiralling incarceration rates, it should come as no surprise that they are equally fixated on ignoring the root causes of the criminalisation of the working class. In this paradoxical, nightmare-like scenario, where ruling class criminals throw back pennies and moral judgements to those whose lives they have destroyed in the name of capitalism, we begin to see the true meaning of capitalist charity.

Undermining Philanthropic Soma

In his classic book, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley referred to soma as something akin to a tranquiliser for the masses. Capitalists working through a multitude of charitable ventures are thus attempting to administer their own philanthropic soma, in a vain effort to placate growing popular resistance to their control of society for the benefit of the few rather than the many. However, as ever, collective political action by the working class is revealing the class basis of society to ever greater numbers of people, who are now joining the political struggle to change the world.

That there is a need for revolutionary change is beyond doubt, but for now, important reforms are vital as well. Like for example bringing Sheffield’s waste services back in-house so they can be run under democratic workers’ control and management, which would not only allow for the provision of a better service, but would also be cheaper as well. It is also vital that concerned citizens educate themselves about the back-room dealings of ruling class philanthropists so they are able to pose an effective challenge to the latter’s cultural domination of civil society. In this way, it is hoped that this chapter will help people participate in the perpetual struggle for democracy.


1. Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Free Press, 2004).

2. Andrea Smith, ‘Introduction: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded’, in: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, eds., The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), 8-9.

3. Robert Humphreys, Poor Relief and Charity, 1869-1945: the London Charity Organization Society (Palgrave, 2001).

4. Sheila Slaughter and Edward Silva, ‘Looking backwards: how foundations formulated ideology in the Progressive Period’, in Robert Arnove, ed., Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston, 1980).

5. Asa Briggs, Michael Young: Social Entrepreneur (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 328.

6. Fiona McIntosh, ‘A4e is another example of fatcats getting richer at the poor’s expense’, Daily Mirror, February 26, 2012.

7. Jay Rayner, ‘Frank Field: Still thinking the unthinkable’, The Observer, July 2, 2006.

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at: