BLOG: 20 years of hitting the giving target

When I set up my charitable foundation twenty years ago my aim was to be pioneering and disruptive in the two fields that I know and care about: information technology (my professional discipline) and autism (my late son’s disorder). So the unimaginatively named Shirley Foundation has always supported innovative strategic work in the spirit of social venture philanthropy.

There is a huge return when you invest socially both to the benefit of other people and ultimately to the donor. In my view when you measure philanthropy against the difference it makes, it is indecent not to help.

Over the years we have made £68m social investments; £50m in autism projects, £15m in information technology and the remainder on a variety of arts and culture projects. Individual donations range from minor amounts to £30m.

To mark our tenth anniversary we conducted an internal review of the impact of the projects we had funded and found that, proportionally, the larger projects best met our criteria; this guided our later giving.

To mark our twentieth anniversary, we commissioned the independent Aperio Group to make an Impact Review of our full history of giving. This was in discussion with me, studying the documentation and surveying 30 key grant recipients using SurveyMonkey and direct telephoning.

The responses received covered 88 per cent of the money given and the respondents (60 per cent of those surveyed) clearly indicated that the funding achieved its intended purposes. It was even more gratifying that a number of projects achieved unintended additional outcomes that added to their value.

As a businesswoman I was also pleased that our processes were regarded as efficient, with measures of aims, methodology and outcomes – agreed with the foundation in advance – seen as well thought out.

With the exception of applications for medical research grants, which conform to ethical and scientific standards, we have always had an informal approach to inviting applications, reflecting my personal values and style. I want to ‘give with a warm hand’ and so we have no application form or detailed written criteria. We do however stress that projects should be within our mission:

Facilitation and support of pioneering projects with strategic impact in the field of autism spectrum disorders with particular emphasis on medical research.

We now focus only on autism because information technology has many sponsors but autism sadly but few. Since our clear focus became well-known, we receive fewer ‘out of the blue’ applications. We try to steer applicants in the right direction, either by friendly criticism as from a critical friend or by suggesting a more appropriate funder where an otherwise good proposal is not for us. We disclose the rationale behind any funding refusals and try always to give an encouraging “thank you for all that you do”.

The lack of a formal process means that we can work with applicants to get the application criteria and project milestones right. My own background and business disciplines are augmented by the skills and experience of my co-trustees (all professionals in their own right) and a variety of suppliers including consultants. To me it is very telling that survey respondents found our application and reporting processes helpful and robust and our ongoing support ‘inspirational’. This is hands-on philanthropy at work.

Of equal significance to venture philanthropy is the concept of emergent strategy: using our giving to support evolving solutions that emerge over time by working with and supporting organisations, people and systems to solve complex issues.

To this end we have sponsored (or indeed in several cases created) organisations that influence policy makers through generating evidence; lever funding; raise awareness; create and apply innovative interventions; and bring about change in government policies and practice. All with the aim of transforming the lives of autistic people and their families. I could not be better reassured that our approach was right than the finding that 100 per cent of those who responded to the survey thought that our work was making a real difference.

Earlier this year the ‘Smarter Grants Initiative’ reported a number of concerns about the charitable grant-making process: complex application processes, lack of communication with applicants, disproportionately more demanding processes for larger grants, and unclear mutual expectations on outcomes and impact. We have actively aimed to avoid these issues in our ambition to be a positive example of best practice in giving.

If I were to do it again could I have achieved more? Of course we made some mistakes along the way, but it is good to know that those we funded think that we would have been hard pressed to achieve more. We gave with love and our best reward is to have been given love in return.

Dame Stephanie was the first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy 2009/10;
and her memoir Let IT Go contains several chapters on her giving record.

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