Banking on Philanthropy?

There has been a lot of talk recently about philanthropy and banking, and the nature of the relationship between them. The two have often been linked ,which is probably unsurprising: On the one hand there is the fact that philanthropy (or at least the sort that involves money in some way) is at a fundamental level a type of financial transaction, albeit one motivated by ethics, religious beliefs, altruism or whatever. Banking is about financial transactions, so bankers should have some sort of affinity with the idea of using money to achieve social aims (at least that’s the theory). On the other hand there is the point that philanthropy is, in broad terms, about taking money from those that have lots and putting it to use for the benefit of those that have very little. And if you want to find people who have lots of money, the banking sector is a good place to look. As Willie Sutton famously replied when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

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The talk about banks and philanthropy has come from a number of different angles: some people have linked it with the Occupy movement and the general calls for banking reform (for instance Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian). The Church of England’s St Paul’s Institute issued a coincidentally timed report dealing with similar issues, highlighting the absence of Christian and moral values in the modern banking sector. Ian Hislop has chosen to turn to the past to compare today’s bankers unfavourably with their Victorian counterparts, in a programme to be broadcast tonight. And a report published today by a philosopher at Oxford University claims that ethically-minded young people should consider going into banking and being philanthropic if they want to have an impact, rather than going to work in the charity or development sectors.

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