Generous praise for the people with a lot to give

In the world of charitable giving and philanthropy, you could say that 2010 was a noticeable year. The highlight globally was the launch of the Giving Pledge Campaign by two of America's richest men, Bill Gates of Microsoft and the financier Warren Buffet.

The project invites the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving 50 per cent or more of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organisations either during their lifetime or after their death.

Already more than 40 billionaires have signed up and in the US philanthropy is a well established and a major source of income for arts, religious and humanitarian causes, as well as educational institutions. It follows in a great tradition of philanthropists inspired by the great Benjamin Franklin in the 18th-century and later the likes of the Rockefellers and the Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie. In the US philanthropy is regarded as a duty of the rich and famous.

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However, while Americans are happy to talk about their philanthropy, it's not something that comes naturally to the British; there is still a reservation about success, wealth and class. But the trend may be changing.

In Britain we, too, have a great philanthropic tradition, possibly beginning with great Victorians such as Titus Salt, Robert Owen and Joseph Rowntree. While their specific deeds may have been forgotten, they are recognised in perpetuity by names on libraries, museums and art galleries. The wonderful Brotherton Library at Leeds University, The Tate Gallery in London and Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool were all the founded or endowed by donations from industrialists.

In recent years, we have several notable examples. Sir Isaac Wolfson, later Baron Wolfson, who died earlier this year, was the founder of Great Universal Stores and a business magnate who set up the Wolfson Foundation which has, since the 1950s, awarded grants of over 600m to support excellence in science, medicine, education, the arts and humanities. Then there is the Sainsbury family which has supported the arts and culture and Sir Tom Hunter, the Scottish retailer who has pledged to give away 1bn over his life time.

Closer to home in Yorkshire, the Burton family has given generously to the arts, as have the Ziffs with many bequests to galleries and universities. More recently Robert Ogden, founder of the Ogden Group, provides scholarships for 40 young people a year from Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham to complete their sixth-form education and go to university.

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We can argue over the motives of many of these donors; a desire for some kind of legacy, personal kudos, genuine altruism or practising what we today call corporate social responsibility. But there is no doubt there is a new breed of philanthropist.

Two of our top private banking institutions, Barclays Wealth and Coutts, have both published studies into philanthropy and their findings are encouraging. Barclays' Tomorrow's Philanthropists report says we are at the beginning of a new age of philanthropy with a different type of donor emerging who is more socially aware and more motivated to give back to the communities they came from.

The Coutts Million Pound Donors Report 2010 says major philanthropy in the UK continues to prove resilient. Tracking the number of million pound donations for the last three years, in 2008-09 they identified 201 separate donations of over 1m, up from 193 in 2006-07 and 189 in 2007-08. Collectively, those donations were worth 1.5bn, up from 1.4bn the year before.

It also reported that the number of donations of this size made by both foundations and corporations has been steadily increasing, as donors rise to the challenges created by the recent recession and spending cuts.

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However, there is more to be done to encourage more donors to discover both the public benefits, and the life-enriching qualities, of philanthropy.

Today charities are much more geared up to working with private donors and companies; whether it is establishing trust funds or enabling companies to develop Corporate Social Responsibility policies.

Community Foundations are expert advisors, working with individual, family and corporate benefactors who want to give, but need support to ensure it is as effective as possible. We use our knowledge and connections with local community and voluntary groups to make sure each donation has the greatest possible impact. We can help set up a Personal Fund (which operates like a charitable trust) or donations can be used to support a themed fund, focusing on key needs, whether it is children, the elderly or a specific deprived area.

My personal experience of a great philanthropist is the late Jimi Heselden, who died tragically in September shortly after donating another 10m to the Leeds Community Foundation, bringing his total contributions to date to over 23m. He was once asked what it was like to be such a great philanthropist. His answer was – "I am not even sure what one of those is, but the reason I give is because I just want to help people who need it most."

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His philosophy was simple, "When times are good," he said, "I honestly believe people have a moral obligation to use their wealth to help others."

But you don't have to be a millionaire to make a difference. We really do welcome donations of any size. There are seven individual Community Foundations in Yorkshire and we can make even smaller donations work hard, especially through the Yorkshire Post's Communities in Need appeal which is helping to promote the Grassroots Grants initiative.

Through this amazing government-funded programme (, we can double, treble or even quadruple the value of your donation through a 1 for 1 matching scheme, but only on donations made in the next few weeks. This can, quite literally, turn a donation costing just 1,000 into one worth 4,000 to your local Community Foundation. So, whether you can donate 10 or 10m, your philanthropy can be used to benefit local communities who need it most.

Sally-Anne Greenfield is chief executive of the Leeds Community Foundation.

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