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Charles Spencer on Philanthropy

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By Sandra Cyr

Charles Spencer does not want to be thought of as ‘saintly.’ While he admits to having various charities that he is connected with, he does not see his work as exceptional. Throughout his lifetime, he has already been involved with almost 40 different organizations. His philanthropic work is driven by a sense of duty, but also by what he calls emotional and sensible philanthropy. An author and historian, he is using speaking engagements on his US book tour for his latest book, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, as an opportunity to leverage his professional calling to draw attention to his philanthropic interests and fundraise for charities close to his heart.Killers of the King book cover

As the 9th Earl of Spencer, he was brought up with the belief that you give something back. The idea of noblesse oblige – the obligation to pay back one’s luck in society – has been a backdrop to the Spencer family for many generations. The first Countess Spencer was a champion of unpopular and controversial causes during the late 18th century. She pioneered prison visiting and caring for the elderly, novel causes of her time, and this sense of generosity, especially as it relates to more ‘difficult’ causes, has been a family tradition ever since. This sense of duty to his family and his position has kept him involved in some organizations, even if their missions are not central to his passions in the sector.

Lord Spencer approaches philanthropy not from a sense of privilege, but rather he attributes part of his motivation to luck. As a father to seven children, he feels it is important to ‘celebrate the luck of their health,’ through supporting causes that focus on less-fortunate children. He considers his family quite lucky to have Althorp, the estate where the Spencers have lived for over 500 years, and views hosting fundraising events there as another way for him to give back to the community. Several times a year, he hosts major fundraising events at Althorp for charities he is passionate about.

It is this passion that drives the work that Spencer does. When it comes to philanthropy, he considers himself a very emotional person. His involvement with the Northampton Hope Centre, a local homeless shelter, stemmed from hearing a radio bulletin during a particularly cold winter a few years ago. “It all sounded so desperate I felt compelled to help,” he explained. “That’s often what happens is that I am just hit by the tragedy of a story.” It was another radio bulletin that led to his involvement with Deafblind UK. The story, which still angers Spencer now, of somebody stealing the holiday savings from the group was so appalling that he got involved for several years by fundraising for them.

Passion and emotion have led Spencer to connect with many interesting causes. In many cases, he commits for a set period of time. In some cases, such as with the Cynthia Spencer Hospice, named after his late grandmother, he is involved for the long haul. He is clear with many of the causes he is involved in that he will gladly help out, but he does not want them to become dependent on him. Lord Spencer connects emotionally to the causes, but encourages organizations to think more broadly, to keep things fresh and interesting in order to keep the donations coming in, in order for them to be sustainable.

What he loves are, “philanthropic causes that are innovative and that make perfect sense.” Whole Child International, based in Los Angeles, takes up most of Lord Spencer’s time. Founded in 2004 by Karen Spencer, Lord Spencer’s wife, Whole Child International works with orphanages in developing countries. Through data supported by Duke University, Whole Child works with these orphanages and shows them that you can look after these children on the same budget in a much more thoughtful and accomplished way. By reducing the number of caregivers that a child interacts with to 3 or 4 individuals, the emotional input and connections the children are able to make is significantly greater, and the impact, Spencer says, is astonishing. This can all be accomplished, he adds, at no extra cost, so it is ‘sensible philanthropy.’

Duty and tradition are the foundation for Charles Spencer’s philanthropic interests, and the emotional and sensible philanthropy drive the work that he does. While he describes himself as an emotional philanthropist, ‘it is sensible philanthropy rather than purely emotional has to be the one to make the greatest impact. As you get older, you become more philanthropic. You get to see the benefits of it. And it’s not ego, it’s a very nice sense of relief actually.’


Charles Spencer, author of Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, was educated at Eton College and obtained his degree in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a reporter on NBC’s Today from 1986 until 1995, and is the author of four books, including the Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: The Battle for Europe (shortlisted for the History Book of the Year, British National Book Awards) and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier. He is currently involved with Whole Child International, Cynthia Spencer Hospice, The Hope Centre, The Brain Tumour Charity, and Thomas’s Fund.

Sandy Cyr is the Managing Editor for the Philanthropy Journal, and a fan of all things related to the nonprofit sector.

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