The Ambassador for Philanthropy on challenges facing the sector

By Lena Baumgartner 4 November 2009

On Monday evening I went to a talk at the offices of Withers LLP by Dame Stephanie Shirley, a seasoned philanthropist and, since May 2009, the UK’s first Ambassador for Philanthropy. The talk was entitled “Facilitating Giving”, but the main thing I took away from the talk were Dame Stephanie’s inspiring words about her own motivations for giving – and her views on the challenges facing the charity sector.

Dame Stephanie’s life offers enough material for several talks, and is closely linked to her commitment to philanthropy. She experienced the kindness of strangers herself early, when in 1939 she arrived at Liverpool Street station as an unaccompanied five year old. She had travelled to the UK on Kindertransport with thousands of other Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. She was taken in by foster parents in the West Midlands. After schooling and university, she eventually started her own software company. Faced with a male dominated sector, she adopted the name “Steve” and decided to only employ women with dependants. (You can read more about Dame Stephanie’s life in her interview in our Giving Insights magazine.)

The enormous success of Dame Steve’s business made her a wealthy woman. She was fully aware of how fortunate she had been and wanted to give back to the society that had taken her in as a child. Today, the Shirley Foundation is a large grant-maker in two areas close to Dame Steve’s heart: autism – her late and only son’s disorder – and the promotion of better use of IT in the charity sector. (To find out more about Dame Steve Shirley’s philanthropy visit her website .)

In May 2009, Dame Steve’s dedication to philanthropy was recognised when the prime minister named her the UK’s firs Ambassador for Philanthropy. Her aims for the role are to increase the levels of giving in the UK and to change the culture of giving. After almost six months on the job, it was particularly interesting to hear her views on the challenges facing the charity sector. Dame Steve identified three of them:

1) the need for philanthropists to become more public – which she is trying to address in her new IT platform “Ambassador(s) for Philanthropy”

2) the need for trusted advisors to speak to their clients about philanthropy; and

3) the need for the sector to professionalise and as part of this focus more on results, instead of being preoccupied with things like charity admin costs.

I fully agree with Dame Steve’s observations. The challenges she identifies are problems that we at NPC are working to address through our advisory work for philanthropists starting out in their giving, our training for trusted advisors on how to raise the issue of philanthropy with their clients and our promotion of effectiveness and results amongst charities and funders in the sector. I was heartened to discover that we’re all pulling in the same direction.

Find out more about Dame Stephanie’s role as Ambassador for Philanthropy here.