We define philanthropy as the giving of resources in an engaged and strategic way for maximum impact and in a tax efficient manner. It can include the giving of money, assets, time, talent, voice and one’s social capital. We believe in the power of philanthropy as a great social connector and the source of many great opportunities.

City Philanthropy

A Wealth of Opportunity

Splashing around in the shallows and other lessons on giving from Lord Sainsbury

Sep 19th 2017

‘A Better World Is Possible’ sounds a tad optimistic in light of the environmental, manmade and political disasters challenging the planet right now.

It is the title of a book from businessman, politician and philanthropist David Sainsbury authored by science writer Georgina Ferry. It documents how Lord Sainsbury's philanthropy has indeed impacted the world for the better.  

The book is a celebration of 50 years and £1bn worth of funding through Lord Sainsbury’s Gatsby Charitable Foundation to science, innovation, education, mental health, the Arts, economic development in Africa and to his Alma Mater Cambridge University. The Labour Peer started the foundation in 1967 as a newly-elected 26-year-old board member of the supermarket chain, handing over £5 and 110,000 ordinary shares in the company as the endowing sum.

Lord Sainsbury says the book is an opportunity to review the performance of the Foundation, see what lessons have been learned, record the achievements of those who have helped run it and encourage other people to use their charitable giving to try to make the world a better place.

It also documents what he has learned from his half a century of risk-taking philanthropy that among a raft of achievements has reduced child mortality rates in Africa, brought science and technology to the aid of economies, established institutions such as the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and The Institute of Government – and once bailed out Nottinghill Carnival,

He offered three key lessons at the book launch, held last week at the London HQ of the 17 Sainsbury Family Trusts that span five generations and include a wide range of causes.

Lesson number one says Lord Sainsbury is “that you fund what you really care about, because only then will you put the effort into learning about those issues and really understand what is involved. To be successful you really have to understand that.” Lord Sainsbury's own interest in the natural sciences were fanned by the 'white heat' of scientific discovery that was forging Britain in the early 60s.

"I though Harold Wilson's speech was fantastic. The idea of the relevance of science and technology to economic growth was at the core of the development of my charitable fund," he says.

He went on to become Minister of Science and Innovation in the UK Government for eight years from 1998 and says the experience informed his philanthropy going forward..

Lesson number two: “Don’t sit there and make a grand plan before you know anything about the issue you are interested in. Start by doing a few small projects and don’t agonise too much about them. After about two years you will know the problems in that area and who are the good guys doing original things. Then you can say this is where we want to put our money.  I call it ‘splashing around in the shallows’."

Gatsby made small grants to scientists to work in the underfunded area of plant growth and disease and encouraged young scientists to specialise in this area before making substantial investments and now acting proactively setting up laboratories dedicated to the topic. 

“Thirdly, if you are going to do philanthropy on any scale, make sure you have very good people working with you who share your desire to do these things because they are not easy to do.”

Part of the legacy of Lord Sainsbury's giving, as Ferry points out, goes beyond what can be counted such as the "the price and yield achieved by Tanzanian cotton farmers; the number of students sitting further mathematics at A level; the number of publications on plant science and their impact...most important and yet least tangible is the legacy of ideas; how to do things better, how to innovate, how to disseminate new knowledge."

Lord Sainsbury and wife Susie are signatories of Bill Gates' Giving Pledge, publicly pledging to give a percentage of their wealth for social good in their lifetime which they have honoured.  

Now, with this publication, perhaps the latest stage in the Sainsbury's giving journey from charity to focussed philanthropy is the desire to advocate and share their 'life-enhancing' experience. 

"Most people don't get the chance to spend their money until late in life. I have had 50 years to learn how to do this starting with small sums. That seemed a good reason for the book," said Lord Sainsbury.

The plan is that Gatsby Charitable Foundation will close with the death of Lord Sainsbury. A major legacy is the next generation of Sainsbury giving through daughters Clare, Lucy and Francesca (Fran). They have chosen causes that are significant to them personally; Clare's Three Guinea's Trust focusses on autism and women's issues; Lucy's Three Colour Trust to supporting children with special needs and their families, while Fran through her Indigo Trust is supporting technology driven projects to deliver social change. Her 360Giving charity which is supporting UK Grantmakers to publish their grant making data openly and build the bigger picture of grantmaking in the UK has already won awards.

This story of long-term philanthropy is set to continue. A  book I picked up at the launch carried a handwritten inscription is to Lord Sainsbury's  grandaughter. It spoke of a hope that she will be proud of her grandparents and parents and will also want to make a better world possible.

This book will be essential reading for her in understanding how to do it.

A Better World is Possible by Georgina Ferry, Profile Books Ltd, www.profilebooks.com


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