Imagining a city without charity

By Mar 14, 2016

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Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, writes a letter to the people of York to explain how charity has shaped her home town.

Dear People of York,

Imagine this city without charity. We would have no great Minster in the centre of the city, developed with funds given freely and philanthropically. We would have no ancient, or indeed modern, trade guilds bringing together people to support young people into new trades. The very buildings – the fabric of this historic city – would not exist if they were not still preserved and maintained by charity. Our city parks, left by the great civic leaders of the past, would not exist. Our amazing museums and art galleries would not be open, and their collections – the raw material of our past - would have been sold and scattered around the world.

The Retreat, founded by Henry Tuke and one of the first humane and decent hospitals for mentally ill people would not still be helping those in need, or would only exist for the massively wealthy. The great industrialist Joseph Rowntree, whose name is noted throughout the city, would not have built the beautiful homes at New Earswick, a model of green and pleasant housing for those on low incomes which is still available for rent today. Nor would he have endowed the trusts that still bear his name and carry on searching out the causes of social evil, strengthening the hands of those that combat the effects of social problems. Together, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Charitable Trust and Reform Trust have pioneered many of the social improvements which we take for granted today, from a minimum wage to the outlawing of discrimination.

“Charity encompasses both that impulse to help others and the vehicle by which we can do so efficiently and effectively.”

Julia Unwin

Charity has shaped the history and the fabric of this city just as surely as the Romans and the Vikings. It continues to provide places for people to meet, places for people to be entertained (our city’s historic theatre is run by a charitable trust) and places for people to study (both our universities stemmed from philanthropic endeavour). Charity allows all of us to contribute to the changing nature of the city, and supports our collective contribution to help people in need.

It is often said that one of our primary human motivations is the desire to contribute. Charity encompasses both that impulse to help others and the vehicle by which we can do so efficiently and effectively. In its many forms, charity allows people in this city to make a difference, to find a voice, to make York a secure place to build lives, as well as a place in which people feel they belong.

Without charity we would be ruled only by the inflexible combination of government and the market. Through charity we can explore new ways of addressing old problems or anticipating new ones. Through charity, we can harness our considerable ingenuity and use our skills and experience, as individuals and collectively, to ensure that the common good remains as central to our concerns as the Minster is to the heart of this great city.

This blog is part of the #CharityIs campaign to champion the charity sector. Join us as we use the power of social media to highlight how charities improve our daily lives.