In a recent speech to the United Kingdom’s Charity Commission Prince William presented his vision of the role and future of philanthropy in England.

William’s speech captured some of the essential truths about charity in a free society, while also hinting at the possible new directions in which he’d like to see British civil society develop. To be sure, a speech like this counts for a bit more than most of the Duke of Cambridge’s standard ceremonial appearances: As William noted at the very top of his address, “supporting charities is at the heart of what I—and the whole Royal Family—do.”

And he’s right—more than 3,000 charitable organizations currently list a British royal as a patron. According to a Guardian report from 2012, Queen Elizabeth has “done more for charity than any other monarch in history,” raising more than £1.4 billion (almost $2 billion) and personally patronizing more than five hundred charities in her more than sixty years on the throne. For better or for worse, philanthropy is both the major platform and preoccupation of the modern British monarchy.

So what did William—currently second in the line of succession—say to the Charity Commission?

First, he highlighted that for him, as for so many others, philanthropy starts at home. “Some of my earliest memories,” William said, “relate to times that my parents spoke to me or—even better—showed me what it meant to have both privilege and responsibilities.”

Indeed, Diana’s charity work was no small part of her vast public appeal. In the late 1980s, at a time when ignorance and fear were exacerbating the deadly HIV/Aids epidemic, Diana was one of the first high-profile individuals to touch an afflicted man without gloves, helping shift public perception with a simple act of human kindness. In 1997, the Peoples’ Princess shocked the world by walking through an active minefield in Angola as part of her campaign to de-mine war-torn areas. And William’s father, the current Prince of Wales, has for more than four decades committed himself to “helping vulnerable young people get their lives on track” via job training, mental health programs, and financial support. So by harkening back to his parents William reminds us that charity tends to beget charity and, as I have written here before, families that discuss their philanthropy openly are more likely to continue giving across generations.

William also affirmed that a truly robust philanthropic culture must necessarily be built on more than vague humanitarianism.

“The very word 'charity',” William said, “which means care and has its roots in the doctrine of Christian love, points to the central humanity and importance” of philanthropy. These acts of organized compassion “form the glue of our society,” the Duke of Cambridge declared, and, vitally, constitute “our links to other parts of the world.”

With this, William shows he understands there’s no such thing as purely private charity—that our mutual support grows out of and serves to encourage our mutual love and that any charity worthy of the name must be willing to see those it serves in all their humanity.

But the heart of William’s speech was a modest suggestion for reform.

Observing the collaborative response of seven prominent charities to the Grenfell Tower fire (the June 2017 accident in a West London housing development that killed 71 people and was blamed on shoddy safety standards), William wondered aloud whether or not collaboration might not suggest consolidation: “Instead of setting up more individual charities working in the same fields, I wonder if we could do more to explore ways of combining forces, working and innovating together?”

He also mentioned the planned merger of two British charities devoted to exactly the same cause—Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer—to press home his point. “I do wonder at times if the compassion which leads people to set up or maintain charities could not be equally well directed at first finding opportunities to work with existing charities. Competition for funds between an ever-growing number of charities, and the confusion it can cause among donors, can lead to the silo-ing of expertise and, at worst, territorial behaviour.”

William’s wife Kate and his brother Harry are singing from the same hymnbook. The three young royals work together on an initiative called Heads Together, a mental health campaign that brings eight different charities under the same umbrella.

There’s something to all this. Redundancy breeds inefficiencies. Though it may rub us in America the wrong way, given our inveterate faith in competition, there’s a typically English pragmatism behind William’s proposal—a pragmatism that may help to navigate the ever-expanding field of British philanthropy.

But here’s a warning for the Philanthropist Prince: while consolidation might help address some causes more efficiently, it might not necessarily be the most effective path to take in the long run. In fact, consolidation can quickly turn into the over-professionalization of civil society, and the most important aspect of having a strong civil society is to provide an arena for educating people in the everyday joys and irritations of self-government, while also helping one's neighbors. The fact that civil society is often therefore amateurish rather than professional is the price we pay for a genuine sense of self-government, even in a constitutional monarchy like Britain’s.

In any case, William’s proposal shows the conversation about charity in Britain is alive and well. And as long as charities continue to be motivated by the caritas that Williams identified as the root of aid, there will continue to be a roadblock to the subtler dangers implicit in his proposal.


Photo credit: VinnieLDA on / CC BY-ND