A recruitment mogul has a new job: helping charities. Jasper Rees meets Alec Reed, and learns more about the Big Give: a one-stop shop for online giving ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008
I have a little money to give away. There’s currently no telethon asking for it. I can’t even find my chequebook these days. And where’s the door-to-door kitchen-product salesman when you need one? So I do what everyone does these days: I go online. But I also want to put some thought into it. Until surprisingly recently, there was no one-stop shop to hunt for a charity of your choice. Then the Big Give sprouted. How big is Big? It has 5,000 charities registered with it, covering the entire boardwalk.
On screen there’s a map of the globe, so I can click on a continent. Or I can click on one of seven circles, representing different sectors. Rather than follow the well-trodden path to the third world, I pursue my current interests and find my way via links and drop-downs to Culture, then to Wales, then to Music, and scroll down through 30 or so choices until I plump for Sinfonia Cymru, who need help putting on a musical open day for 350 children in Newport. I’ve hardly saved the world. But if it weren’t for the Big Give, they would never have received my £25.
I do all this in the long shadow cast by Alec Reed. A robust and committed philanthropist of 75, Reed is the founder of a leading employment agency, but has long since recalibrated his entrepreneurial instincts away from making money to giving it. The two major charities with his pawprints all over them are Womankind, which helps women in developing countries, and Ethiopiaid, which tackles poverty in Ethiopia. This latest initiative arose from a think-tank in which the topic boiled down to one big question: “How the hell do you give this money away?”
“It wasn’t a formal meeting,” says Reed. “I was just looking for ideas. One sharp brain said, ‘What you want is a virtual charity.' I said, ‘That sounds great. What’s that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. But these days everything is digital.’” Reed’s employment operation already has a thriving website for job-seekers. He decided to take its existing architecture, constructed to allow users to search both broadly and narrowly, and reapply it. The Reed Foundation put the word out. Soon charities as large as Oxfam and as small as the one which protects white rats were signed up free. The aim is to put the ball in the donor’s court, rather than leave it up to charities to tout for business.
“We’re trying to make giving proactive rather than reactive. At the moment everybody responds to mailshots, but it’s not the most intelligent way of giving. A charity which knocks on your door might be tackling hunger in Africa but there might be a hundred people doing it better.” Not that there aren’t inefficient charities on the Big Give. But the visitor has the information to weed out, say, the charity that claims to tackle a gamut of social ills across Africa and Asia but has an annual turnover of £3,000.
In the site’s 14-month life, the learning curve has been almost vertical. Ever needful of new donors, in September the Reed Foundation sent out 10,000 free £25 Christmas gift vouchers to companies to be spent on the site by their employees. The take-up was low. “Maybe the message was confused. One friend thought it was an ad for Marks & Spencer hampers. Another said, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can give to any more charities.’ When you think the charity is talking to you, you don’t imagine they’re going to give you money. If you went out with 20,000 quid in fivers, you wouldn’t find it too easy to give them away. They can’t trust it.”
Reed is now trying a different tack. As a sponsor of the West London Academy he is offering vouchers to help improve behaviour. If this shows a touching faith in junior altruism, the larger initiative is something donors will find easier to understand: matched funding. The foundation’s idea is to give away £1m, but where other people want it to go. If a donor finds a charity they want to donate to on the Big Give, the Reed Foundation will match it. The catch is that the donation has to be no lower than £1,000 (and, to stop someone swiping the entire pot for their own chosen charity, no more than £5,000).
“If you are keen on the Writers’ Benevolent Society, that’s fine by us. As long as you put a thousand quid in, you’ll find that the mechanism takes our £1,000 with it. As soon as a million pounds is spent, the lights go out and it’s switched off. The scheme is designed to get 4,500 charities working for us. They’ll be selling the idea, and getting people onto Big Give.”
The website showcases a staggering £1.6 billion-worth of projects. I look around the Reed Foundation’s modest hive of an office in Knightsbridge, where the boss has long since vacated the leather desk and the boardroom for a workstation among much younger colleagues. The obvious question needs asking. Who’s got a spare grand these days?
“We have a slogan,” he says. “Thrive through turbulent times. If there’s a bloody great snowfall, you take another slope. There are billions of pounds holed up in trusts and foundations, just waiting to be spent.”
Picture credit: Harry Malt