Charity, the North Star of the Livery Companies

The City's 110 livery companies are a diverse bunch of organisations and it is fair to say that there is not likely to be much in the way of occupational or professional overlap between the Air Pilots and the Wax Chandlers, but there is one aspect of the life of the livery that is shared by every company and that is their ethos of charitable giving.

Charity is the North Star of the livery and every company is involved in philanthropic activity to a lesser or greater extent as its corporate means, and the means of its membership, permits. A popular internet encyclopaedia describes several of the livery companies as having lost their connection with trade and transformed in to charitable bodies. This suggests that the livery companies have belatedly become involved with charity, whereas the charitable aspect of their activities has been evident since the earliest times. Moreover most livery companies are still intimately connected with their trade.

While this article focusses on the measurable outputs of the livery's charitable activities, the true test of value is in the lasting impact that the livery makes on countless lives in all walks of life, from its support to the Church, the Armed Forces, founding and governance of schools, almshouses, development of apprentices, affiliation with youth organisations, the pastoral care for members and their partners, the moral support provided to good causes and the boost in morale that the livery provides to men and women serving in the military. None of this can ever be counted, yet it counts far more than the money and time of the livery.

Where do the Livery Companies get their money from?

The charitable wealth of the livery companies comes from a number of sources, the combination of which will differ from one company to the next, but are broadly: donations from the membership (especially through Continuous Charitable Giving); bequests from deceased members; income from property; income from investments and savings.

Some companies are entirely reliant on donations from the membership (Freemen and Liverymen), whereas others can call on centuries of careful and wise investment. However it may be that the company finds its charitable funds you'll never see a livery company asking members of the public to subscribe or donate, and it is partly for that reason the philanthropic work of the livery goes unnoticed by the public at large, perhaps giving the impression that the livery is opaque and (if you read the press) that it is just a drinking club for old gentlemen.

Unlike the major national charities involved in fighting cancer, heart disease, or myriad other good causes, the livery doesn't advertise and it doesn't ask for donations outside of its own membership.

Who are the membership of the livery companies?

While it is certainly true to say that the livery has a high proportion of members over the age of 60, the balance between retirees and those in work differs greatly from one company to the next. The occupational requirements of membership of the 33 modern livery companies mean that their members are predominantly still working.

Recent figures show that the membership of the livery is getting younger, and perhaps surprisingly the younger the membership, the higher proportion of women, in several companies they form a majority of the under 40s. The livery is diversifying and pushing down its age profile quite significantly, and the livery is working hard to increase diversity among its membership.

The livery does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion. The livery is a surprisingly meritocratic body and has for centuries welcomed apprentices, graduates, mid-career professionals and retirees in all walks of life.

Is it just about donating money to good causes?

The definition of the livery's charitable activities reaches far beyond the disbursement of funds to good causes, as liverymen also give their time and professional talent in support of the charitable aims of their livery company, often in combination with funds, and in other ways such as use of the company's hall or by shining a light on the charity by sharing a float in the Lord Mayor's Show. The livery companies are adept at brokering introductions between charitable causes and corporate partners, and they also have an enormous depth of experience in charity governance which can be used to support smaller charities that may need a helping hand.

In many cases the livery companies have chosen strategic charity partners who they commit to support financially, through the talent of the liverymen, often for a number of years. It is a strength of the livery companies that they are able to take a very long term view, aided as they are by the knowledge that the company is designed to last for centuries, and the generosity of the membership can be relied upon in this life, and the next!

Who benefits from the charitable work of the livery companies?

Each company determines its own charitable objectives, and while some charitable funds may be tied to specific causes (e.g., as specified in a bequest), others may be unrestricted. Unlike the big household name charities that are involved in a single field (e.g., cancer, heart disease, poverty relief, animal welfare) each livery companies will usually support multiple causes, some short term, some longer term, some one-off, others for centuries.

One example is the support that the Mercers' Company and the Corporation of London jointly provide to the funding of Gresham College. The bequest of Sir Thomas Gresham has permitted Gresham College to run free public lectures for over 500 years.

Modernity is not something one readily associates with the livery companies, or with charitable causes in general, but as ever the livery defies the assumptions many make about its relevance in the 21st century, for example:

In 2018 the charity of the Information Technologists' Company's charity split a £750,000 prize between two charities, Campaign against Living Miserably and Missing People, who are both engaged in the development of an artificial intelligence (AI) led solution to the volume of calls they receive from vulnerable people in need of their services. The Information Technologists are combining that financial support with the expertise of the membership, and capturing the lessons learned to enable other charities to benefit from the experience gained in developing this AI solution.

Campaign against living miserably is one of two charities to benefit from the WCIT Charity Award

The Goldsmiths' Company and its associated charity have pledged £10m to support the redevelopment of the Museum of London on its new site in West Smithfield, just one of the many charitable causes supported by that company. In other cases the disbursements of a single livery company may be of substantial total value, but split across many causes, some of which are perhaps not likely to grab the public imagination. In 2018 the Leathersellers' Company's charity donated £2.56m to various causes including £124,000 to criminal justice and rehabilitation. The Armourers & Brasiers Gauntlet Trust is involved in making small grants that support education in the field of materials science, and the author has seen the evidence of this in person during a visit to Cambridge University.

This is another strength of the livery companies, they can support causes that might otherwise struggle to attract charitable funding or are of niche and specialist interest. The Salters' Company's charitable foundation is no exception, and among its beneficiaries in 2017/18 was Room to Heal, a community for refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced torture or organised violence of one sort or another.

The most recent information available to categorise the livery's charitable disbursements date from 2010 and showed that 51% went to education, 31% to welfare, 7% to trade, 3% to the arts, 2% to the church and 6% went to a variety of other charitable causes.

However, the charitable work of the livery companies is not limited to just supporting those charities chosen by each company. The livery also supports the Lord Mayor's appeal through a wide range of popular activities including the annual Great Sheep Drive, the Inter Livery Pancake Races on Shrove Tuesday and many liverymen participate in the Lord Mayor's Big Curry Lunch in support of ABF The Soldiers' Charity.

Note: The scale and diversity of charitable causes supported by the livery is greater than can be put across in a short blog article so I apologise to the many companies and good causes that don't get a mention in this article... perhaps your company could do something to better promote its charitable work to a wider audience?

Do the membership of the livery companies benefit from the charitable disbursements?

The charitable activities of the livery companies are not engaged in benefitting the membership. Livery company charitable funds are held in charitable trusts that exist to benefit good causes. The modern way of managing charitable trusts is through a registered charity, and to that end most livery companies have separated the company from the charity, the latter being subject to the regulation of the Charity Commissioners and charity law.

While it is conceivable that a liveryman might, for example, end up in an almshouse that is supported by his or her own livery company, such a situation would be coincidental.

Why don't the Livery Companies promote their charitable work?

A livery company is not like any other charitable organisation because it has a constant source of renewal in its membership, and some of the ancient companies have Freemen and Liverymen who are descendants of families that have been involved with the company for generations. This gives the livery companies a strength that no other charitable organisation can call upon. No livery company has to mount a TV campaign or employ charity muggers to boost its coffers.

The ability of the livery companies to think, plan and act for the very long-term means that their charitable activities are often carried out quietly, discreetly, and without fanfare. While some companies publish an annual charity review, or highlight charitable activities in a quarterly magazine, the livery's communications are principally aimed inward to the membership.

So how much do the Livery Companies disperse to charity each year?

Reliable figures are difficult to come by because there is no central coordinating body for the livery companies. In 2010 a survey of the 108 companies that existed at that time revealed a figure of approximately £42m per annum, although the data was incomplete. A more recent survey conducted in the autumn of 2018 revealed a figure of £67m, but again the data was incomplete as 18 of the 110 companies existing at that time did not respond to the survey.

In all probability the annual charitable outlay of the livery companies is probably nearer to £75-80m if the 18 companies that did not respond all disburse an amount equal to the average of the 92 companies that did respond, and that doesn't count the 3 companies without livery or the 4 guilds in the City of London, all of which also give to charity. Even at the lower figure of £65m the livery's charitable disbursements in 2018 were greater than those of Imperial Cancer Research (£43m), the World Wildlife Fund (£50m), BBC Children in Need (£46m) or Help for Heroes (£49m) all of which are household names.

Keep in mind that the livery is able to do this year on year, and plans to do so for centuries to come.

What about the time and talent of the liverymen?

The value of the time given by the livery is impossible to calculate, nevertheless it is valuable, and should not be overlooked. As with the collation of charitable disbursements it is difficult to pin down accurate or complete data across all the livery companies. A survey conducted in the autumn of 2018 revealed that 75,000 hours were volunteered by liverymen from among the 92 companies who responded to the survey. As with the charitable disbursement figure, the true number of hours donated by the livery is undoubtedly higher.

It would be invidious to put an hourly rate to these volunteer hours, as the livery comprises a membership in such diverse occupations as airline pilot, baker, police officer, taxi driver and surgeon.

Is every company dispersing as much as it should?

No two companies are the same, the size of their charitable trusts will vary, as will the size of their membership and the means of the members. It would be impossible and unfair to compare older companies, some of which have existed for 800 years, with others that have existed for less than a decade. Even among the older companies some will have significant property portfolios, whereas others may have lost property in the blitz, or the great fire. It is just not possible to compare any two companies from the perspective of charitable disbursements, there are too many fundamental differences.

Of course every company could disperse more, it could squeeze more out of its membership, it could raise rents, it could run down its reserves, it could auction of its treasures, sell of its hall (if it has one) but livery companies are in it for the very long term (centuries) and therefore have to manage their charitable trusts in a prudent manner that delivers benefits now and in the future. This long-term view means that the bequest of Lord Mayor Richard (Dick) Whittington is still being managed by the Mercers' Company today and good causes are still benefitting from monies gifted in the 15th century.

What every livery company certainly could do is up its game in communicating outwardly about its role, relevance and positive impact in the 21st century.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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  1. Paul - great read. Not easy to distil down a total of 800+ years of philanthropy and giving across the 110 Livery Companies that exist today. Thank you for referencing the Goldsmiths’ Company’s £10m pledge to the new Museum, of London project – just one of the significant partnerships we have lined up as we approach out 700-year anniversary in 2027. (I work for the Goldsmiths' – to show my hand.)

    At the Goldsmiths' Company we also continue to invest in the craft, trade and industry we were set-up to support – gold and silversmiths. This can often get overlooked – as you say we need to communicate better (part of my role).

    Perhaps the most striking recent demonstration of our commitment to those in the craft, trade and industry was the £17.5m investment we made in setting up the Goldsmiths’ Centre, a unique facility in Clerkenwell, London, which opened in 2012. The Goldsmiths’ Centre brings together trainee and working goldsmiths and those interested in the industry into a unique community that works and learns together.

    As the government focuses on the importance of technical skills to the UK economy, the
    Goldsmiths’ Centre is pivotal to developing a skilled workforce in the sector and promoting craftsmanship in the UK, from offering business development courses to apprenticeships and badly needed affordable workshop space in Central London. If your readers are interested they can find out more here
    We also produce a Charity impact report which readers can find here


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