Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s charity donation: Broke? You can still be a philanthropist

Former Manchester Utd striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer may be donating his £2m testimonial fee, but giving is no longer for the super-rich. Bryony Gordon reports

When Jon Brooks launched the website the Big Give last year, the idea was to provide a database of philanthropic projects that the super-wealthy could have at their fingertips should they feel the need need to splurge a few hundred thousand – or a few million.

The projects rolled in almost as quickly as the interest from donors, some of whom, Brooks noticed, were not city bankers or Russian oligarchs or rich businessmen. They were normal people with small amounts of cash. They were a new kind of philanthropist, who wanted the same hands-on access to projects as the old kind.

“The projects on our site range from rebuilding museums all the way down to helping out at a girls’ youth group,” says Brooks, from his Knightsbridge office.

“It quickly became clear that even people with only small amounts of money to spare liked it because it gave them control over where their money went. It allowed them to donate intelligently and be proactive philanthropists.”

Meanwhile, at Birmingham University, a student called Matt Kepple was also wanting to do more with less money.

So he set up a project for his fellow students that allowed them to pool their limited funds together to help one project – the idea being that he and 17 of his friends each put a pound in every month, which then went to a small charity somewhere.

Later this year, he will launch it on a larger scale as wahblo.com, which takes its name from the Jamaican for “How are you?”.

When George Soros, the financier who has given more than $6 billion to charitable causes, was asked how one became a philanthropist, his answer was simple: “Get rich first.” And indeed, the best-known philanthropists of our time have all been filthy, stinking rich. Witness the Clinton Foundation, which raises funds to help people with HIV, or the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Then there is businessman Warren Buffett, whose $30 billion gift two years ago to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was the biggest charitable donation in history. Speaking of which, there is Bill Gates himself, who earlier this month gave up his job at Microsoft to take control of the charity full-time.

In the UK, the former Manchester United footballer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has opted to spend his Premiership wage on children in Africa rather than fast cars and girls. The estimated £2 million proceeds from his testimonial match at Old Trafford this weekend – which footballers usually keep for themselves – will be used to build schools in Angola, Malawi and Mozambique.

Then there are the software entrepreneurs Ros and Steve Edwards, whose recent donation of £30 million to New Hall, Cambridge, saw it renamed Murray Edwards College (the Murray bit comes from the college’s founder, Dame Rosemary Murray).

Next there is hedge-fund supremo Arpad Busson, fiance of Uma Thurman, whose foundation ARK raises money for underprivileged children (at its annual fundraiser last month, which raised £26 million, Tony Blair was a speaker).

And earlier this month it was announced that Simon Sainsbury, the great-grandson of the founder of Sainsbury’s, who died in 2006, had left 18 masterpieces to the Tate and the National Gallery. The paintings, which include works by Monet, Freud, Gainsborough and Degas, came to a combined total of £100 million.

For the rest of us, consigned to scraping the pennies out of the back of the sofa to sponsor a donkey in some corner of the earth, such examples can lead to feelings of hopelessness, especially as we try to get to grips with the credit crunch. But as Jon Brooks and Matt Kepple show, one doesn’t need to be wealthy to be philanthropic.

In the UK, the drive for philanthropy is such that there are groups set up to help people tailor their charitable giving. Philanthropy UK, New Philanthropy Capital and the Institute for Philanthropy all exist to inform donors on options.

“We regularly receive calls from normal, middle-class people who want to see their money have more of a direct impact,” says Musa Okwonga of the latter institute. “You could call me up and say you only have £50 to spare, and I’d ask you what the issues are that concern you. Let’s imagine you say Third-World poverty. What are the causes of that?

Literacy, women’s rights, or a lack of them, and then we can find you a project.”

Indeed, it is disillusionment with the big charities, and the fear that donations will be lost in a jungle of bureaucracy or eaten up by corrupt Third World regimes, that has led in part to the micro-philanthropy movement.

“I found that too many charities force people to give by making them feel guilty for not giving,” says 25-year old Kepple, of Wahblo. “And then they fail to let people know how their donation has been spent. I want [my site] to make it easier for charities to rectify this.”

The other impetus for micro-philanthropy has been the internet. “One billion people are now connected thanks to the web,” says Tom Munnecke, who runs the Uplift Academy, a philanthropic institute in America.

“And instead of having to go to one big, centralised bureaucracy such as the Red Cross or Oxfam, we can now go to the edge and take control. It’s a radical concept and large charities don’t really want to have to deal with it.”

The result has been a boom in websites such as The Big Give, which allow mainstream access to projects that are usually only accessible to the super-rich. One of the best known is kiva.org, which allows people to lend as little as £12 to small businesses in the Third World and stay in touch to see how their investment is going. “We call it being a Bill Gates philanthropist without a Bill Gates budget,” says Fiona Ramsey, who works at the site.

Another newcomer is microgiving.com, which allows the hard-up to post requests for finances and assistance, while Global Giving, which launches a UK site in the autumn, connects donors with local community projects. Peter Deitz, who runs socialaction.com, which aggregates all of these sites, describes this as Philanthropy version 2.0.

“It’s the user-generated content of the philanthropy world – a bit like bloggers supplementing the media,” he says. “Before, if you wanted to help you had to knock on doors, send letters, spend money. Now there’s a social network provided by the internet that makes it far easier for individuals to get things done.”

Of course, small amounts of money won’t get you an Oxbridge college named after you, but some suggest that such flashy donations are more to do with showing off than actual philanthropy. “Micro-philanthropists don’t need their name in lights because the amounts are so small that that isn’t the incentive,” says Deitz. “Most people don’t actually want to see their name on an orphanage. They just want to see the orphanage built. They are doing it for other reasons.”

In this way, many think that micro-philanthropy works a lot better than the grand gestures. “The problem is that when you have someone donating a huge amount of money, nobody is going to tell them if it actually does more harm than good,” says Munnecke.

“Unfortunately there can be perverse effects in good intentions. After the tsunami, the Body Shop sent a load of shampoo and toiletries to Indonesia, but that didn’t help the people there who already sold shampoo and toiletries; in fact, it put them out of business.

Similarly, we send food to Somalia, but it just gets sold on and then the money is spent on arms, and we are often the last to know about it. But with micro-philanthropy, you do something on a small scale and see how it works on a larger scale.”

“Look up the word ‘philanthropy’,” says Munnecke, “and you will see that it is defined as a ‘love of humanity’. It’s not about writing out a cheque; money is just the back end of it.

And I really believe that a million people donating a dollar has a far greater impact on a cause than one person donating one million dollars.”