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Philanthropy in Action: Mission Possible

Posted by london


Fiona Halton believes there is philanthropic potential in all of us and that, by pooling our resources, we can effect positive change

Brummel Magazine 18 December 2014. Words: Charlotte Metcalf; Illustration: Daniel Frost

Fiona Halton’s mission is to turn Britain into a nation of philanthropists. Many would scoff at her audacity, but her track record shows she has never been one to duck a challenge. In 1986, she set up the Great Investment Race, in which investment teams used their skills to raise more than £750,000 for charity. Thereafter, she was co-director of Comic Relief and part of the team that organised Red Nose Day. Then she founded TimeBank, which aims to make volunteering as easy as donating money. In 2000, she became chief executive of Pilotlight, which has helped hundreds of people in the City and beyond give their time and know-how to charities, often doubling their turnover within a year.

This year, Halton has moved on again, founding Philanthropy in Action (PIA) and bringing the global network Social Venture Partners (SVP) to London (SVPL) as its first initiative. Her firm conviction is that everyone has a philanthropic journey in them, but that Brits are not very good at taking the first step. Her aim is to help us on our way. I meet her at the new Rosewood Hotel, near her office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. ‘Just look at how many people did the Ice Bucket Challenge this year – we all want to do something positive,’ she enthuses.

While still at Pilotlight, she commissioned a report from Dr Beth Breeze at the University of Kent’s Centre for Philanthropy. ‘We found several barriers to giving,’ Halton says. ‘Some people said they didn’t believe they had anything to offer. Others didn’t know where to give or were too busy. Some, having previously given money and had a bad experience such as lack of feedback on how their donation was spent, were worried charities aren’t managed well.’

‘SVPL really suits the City. It’s like a funders’ fund, where you can participate in the very best ideas’

Dr Breeze elaborates: ‘We’re seeing an end to the armchair philanthropist. Younger professionals these days view philanthropy as an ongoing activity rather than a one-off transaction, and prefer it to be integrated into their lives. They want to roll up their sleeves and contribute their time, experience, knowledge and contacts as well as their money. People in the City are keen to get involved, but are often time-poor, so they’re looking for a model that enables them to use their time efficiently.’

For Halton, SVPL was the solution. SVP was founded 17 years ago in Seattle by Paul Brainerd, three years after he sold his software company, Aldus Corporation, to Adobe. ‘He felt fortunate and wanted to make a difference, but didn’t want to do it alone, so he sent out an invitation requesting help. A hundred people responded, and SVP – a network of like-minded people dedicated to improving their community and pooling resources to do it – was born,’ she explains. Its website puts it simply: ‘It starts with one person. One person joins many people. Together they will help build communities able to solve our most entrenched problems.’ From Seattle, the network has spread to Canada, Japan, Australia, China, Korea, India, Singapore and, now, thanks to Halton, the UK. The organisation has become the biggest philanthropic network across the world, with 3,000 members.

SVP’s ‘executive connector’, Paul Shoemaker, was recently endowed with ‘Superhero’ status by ParentMap for being what the news magazine calls a Social Visionary. When I call him, he has just returned from SVP’s Audacious Philanthropy conference in Austin, Texas. I ask him why Americans are such proactive philanthropists.

‘It’s in our DNA,’ he says. ‘We’ve had enough economic growth and wealth creation to create a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle – if you make a lot of money, it’s now seen as cool and right to give it away. Also, we’re more frustrated by our public sector than in some parts of the world – we don’t wait for our government to fix things and are more likely to effect change in our own communities.’

He explains SVP’s success simply: ‘Our model fits with our globally connected world and the way we want to give – and that resonates even more now than when we started. I was recently in Asia, and it’s easy to be struck by how different things are there, but people everywhere want to build communities in shared ways, so, all of a sudden, you have ideas being generated that are common to Beijing, London, Dallas.

‘I’m a big fan of Fiona. She brings energy and chutzpah to SVP, as well as being well connected.’ Having formed her first group of 10 this autumn, she hopes to have recruited 20 people by March and 100 by 2016. It costs £5,000 to become a member. Half of that sum is pooled in a charity fund, the other half goes towards making the group more strategic, which Halton describes as a ‘mini philanthropy course’. Indeed, it’s the chance to be educated in philanthropy many find attractive.

One member, entrepreneur and former City lawyer Jeremy Tobias-Tarsh, says: ‘I’m already a trustee of a grant-giving organisation, but SVPL offers a more powerful platform for philanthropists, both through the experience we share together and the educational programme we design, which informs our giving and ensures it’s super-effective. Most individual donors don’t want to contribute to a charity’s running costs, but we understand it’s crucial to cover those if the organisation is to sustain its work. We’re still at the exciting early stage where we’re searching for the aching need where we can deploy our collective intellectual and financial capital to make a difference.’

Tobias-Tarsh feels SVPL can recapture the vanishing culture of giving in which he grew up. ‘I come from a liberal Jewish community and our house was always full of people fundraising for Shelter, Relate or Israel,’ he says. ‘My parents were professionals with a public-service ethos, but our lives are so hectic today and volunteering is so regulated, we find it hard to involve our kids in our charitable work. What really appealed about SVPL was the chance to get involved as a family, and the commitment of the partners to bring through the next generation of philanthropists.’

One of the first to join SVPL in the UK was Sophie Kingsley, chair of Fine Cell Work, which teaches prisoners and ex-offenders how to sew and make money from their work. She worked as HR director for Barclays Capital before starting her own business, EI8HT, which she sold in 2008. ‘SVPL is a win-win and a no brainer. Previously, I might have given, say, £5,000 to charity, but if you bring together 10 people, they can make a huge difference,’ she says. ‘It really suits the City because the effect of SVPL is like a funders’ fund, where you can participate in the very best ideas and get feedback about everything you do. All the skills you need to join SVPL are intrinsic to banking; however, these attributes are harder to find in the charity sector and, thus, desperately needed.’

She continues: ‘Here in Britain, we may not have the culture they have in the United States of giving away money, but we do have a passion for social justice. Look at our history – take the Salvation Army, for instance – we need to get some of that inclination back. SVPL is about fixing and addressing big social issues.’

Halton wants to be ‘the champion of the donor’. In setting out to make it easier for people to give, she shows that she understands that, although they want their contribution to be meaningful, they might be modest about their ability to help. SVPL is egalitarian and functions like a choir, so members can sing their hearts out without having to risk exposure as the soloist. She also appreciates that philanthropy is much more than just a dreary matter of writing a cheque – it has to be fun. ‘The beauty of SVPL is that it’s empowering, like going on an adventure with a group of like-minded souls who also want to make a difference,’ she says.