Today (21st September) is World Alzheimers Day. This is a global day of awareness, designed to get people thinking about the challenges posed by this, the most common form of dementia, and about what they can do to support the work of charities and governments to combat this disease.
There is not much to say about the day itself, other than that Alzheimer’s is clearly a terrible disease which has a massive affect upon the lives of those who suffer from it and those around them, and any efforts to raise awareness and support should be applauded.
But as is the wont of this blog, I thought it was worth just taking a small step back and thinking about what World Alzheimer’s Day might tell us about the broader importance of charities and not-for-profit organisations. And it struck me that it is a perfect example of the way in which philanthropy can help to shape and demonstrate public opinion and thereby push governments to act.
Dementia has, in recent years, come to be seen as a mainstream policy issue. And this should not be a surprise: it affects 850,000 people in the UK and 47 million people worldwide, and it has been estimated that dementia costs the UK £26.3bn every year. Here in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year pledged £300m of funding for dementia research, and the creation of a new global fund for dementia which could attract money from the public and private sectors around the work.
In part, this new focus on dementia is a reflection on the changing demographics of our society. As our population ages (e.g. the number of people over 85 in the UK is predicted to double in the next 20 years and nearly treble in the next 30), and advances in healthcare reduce the prevalence of many preventable illnesses, a much sharper focus is thrown on those diseases of old age that remain unpreventable and incurable, such as cancer and dementia. From a ruthlessly rational public policy perspective, it now makes economic and political sense to consider dementia as an issue.
This is where the importance of charitable giving becomes clear: although dementia as a mainstream policy issue is a fairly new development, it has been an important focus of philanthropic action for a long time. This reflects the psychology of giving, where emotion, empathy and a personal connection to a cause play a fundamental role.
Many people will, unfortunately, have some personal experience of dementia as a result of one of their friends or family suffering from the disease, and will therefore have a personal connection to the cause. Furthermore, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are diseases that can affect anyone, and are not primarily determined (as far as we know) by genes or lifestyle. Hence it is very easy to envisage a situation in which you yourself or your loved ones could be affected in the future, and hence we all have a vested interest in research that looks at possible means of prevention.
These human factors, which are so typical of charitable giving, explain why even when dementia was seen by policymakers as a peripheral issue, so many people were motivated to give to charities working to combat the disease. Over time, this philanthropic support has played an important role in demonstrating the depth of public feeling about this issue. Furthermore, the work that charities have been able to do as a result of the donations they receive has proved invaluable in providing an evidence base that can now guide and shape the policy response by governments who have woken up to this issue.
This is a pattern we see repeated time and time again. Philanthropic support for a cause, based on human connections, eventually reaches a tipping point where the strength of feeling and the body of evidence that has been amassed either forces governments to take note of a previously ignored issue, or leads them to reassess their priorities. Shaping the agenda for public policy is not the only purpose of philanthropy, but it is an important one, and key part of the reason philanthropy continues to be relevant and important in our society.