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The Rausings’ generosity shames our homegrown billionaires

Surprisingly few of the very rich are philanthropists — those in the UK who are tend to be immigrants

says Richard Morrison in The Times

Why do the rich give away money? Or, a more crucial question, why don’t they? Some philanthropists have set up an initiative called the Beacon Collaborative with the aim of persuading more high-net-worth people to be generous with their dosh. Not before time, because significant philanthropy in Britain is pathetically rare. The median level of giving among the very rich is a meagre £240 a year.

That’s the mournful background to a very cheering philanthropic deed this week — in fact, two in quick succession. The Royal Academy of Arts has announced a £10 million gift from Julia and Hans Rausing, enabling an upgrade of its art school.

Now, Tim Laurence, the chairman of English Heritage (and the husband of Princess Anne) announced that English Heritage would build a spectacular footbridge to Tintagel Castle, thanks to a £2.5 million donation from . . . Julia and Hans Rausing.

I asked Laurence how that donation (the largest in English Heritage’s history) came about. “The Rausings live quite near us in Gloucestershire,” he murmured, as if that explained everything. Well, perhaps it does, but let’s dig deeper into what motivates Hans Rausing to donate so many millions to good causes.

To begin with, he comes from a family steeped in philanthropy. That makes a huge difference. When Fran Perrin, the daughter of Lord Sainsbury, was recently asked why she became a philanthropist, she replied: “Because I grew up in a family where there are 18 charitable trusts, it never really occurred to me not to.” The Rausing family, who (according to the 2018 Sunday Times Rich List) have a tolerable £9.3 billion in their collective piggy bank, haven’t been rich for as long as the Sainsburys (their fortune comes from the 1940s invention of the Tetra Pak cartons that keep milk and juice fresh), but the patriarch, Hans Rausing Sr, and his three children have foundations that give away millions each month.

Two other points to note. First, they are immigrants. Hans Sr brought the family to Britain in the 1980s to escape Sweden’s punitive tax regime. And it’s a strange fact that, from Carnegie in the 19th century to Paul Hamlyn in the 20th and such figures as Leonard Blavatnik in the 21st, prosperous immigrants are often far more assiduous than homegrown billionaires about “giving something back” to their adopted country.

Second, sibling rivalry can be a big motivating factor in philanthropy, and I suspect there’s a fair bit of that among the Rausings. Lisbet, 58, the eldest sibling, set up her Arcadia Fund in 2001, since when she has given £400 million to causes ranging from saving endangered languages to environmental charities. Oh, and she tossed a handy half-million to the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum.

Not far behind, her sister, Sigrid, 57, besides owning and editing Granta magazine, has given £250 million to 850 organisations. Her grants tend to go to human rights charities.

By contrast the youngest sibling, Hans, 55, set up his foundation only in 2014, but he’s making up for lost time. In less than five years he has given almost £200 million. What motivates such frenetic philanthropy? Amateur psychiatrists will think they know. Unlike his sisters, who pursued their academic studies to PhD level, the young Hans was the quintessential black sheep. He and his first wife, Eva, were drug addicts, their habits fuelled by limitless wealth, their lives tumbling into inevitable tragedy when Eva died in 2012 and Hans, apparently unable to face reality even then, bizarrely let her corpse decay for two months in their Chelsea mansion (for which he received a suspended prison sentence). We know the sordid details because Hans’s sister Sigrid helpfully published a memoir.

That a reformed Hans was rehabilitated into upper-class society so quickly is a testament to the steadying influence of Julia, his second wife, a former Christie’s executive who is herself no stranger to family tragedy. Her two-year-old brother drowned; her sister, the fashion journalist Isabella Blow, killed herself. How much, though, did Hans’s chequered past motivate his present philanthropy? Do hundreds of British charities (including many tackling drug dependency) now benefit from a public exorcising of private demons? Only one man can answer that, and I suspect this reclusive figure won’t tell us any time soon.

Reading Ron Chernow’s biography of John D Rockefeller, the oil tycoon whose ruthlessness bankrupted rivals, but whose philanthropy benefited millions, one sentence struck me. “What makes Rockefeller problematic,” Chernow writes, “is that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad.”

As is shown by the arts world’s squirming over the multimillion donations of the Sackler family (accused of profiting from an addictive painkiller), weighing the good against the questionable when accepting philanthropy hasn’t got easier since Rockefeller’s day. Oscar Wilde quipped that the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and you could say the same about many epic displays of apparent altruism.

In the case of the Rausings, however, so what? I just rejoice that, from Cornish cliffs to Scottish highlands, this remarkable family have given so much to their adopted country. I wish there were more like them.