As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Here Ben Morton-Wright, Founder, Group CEO and Director, Global Philanthropic Holdings, interviews Dame Stephanie Shirley CH, Businesswoman and Philanthropist. Over the course of the last 30 years, Dame Stephanie has given away almost £70 million to good causes. In this interview, Dame Shirley talks about important role of women in philanthropy, Venture Philanthropy, and how she approaches and focuses her giving, investing strategically in projects that will benefit from her time or insight, as well as her money, to maximise positive outcomes.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:00

I’m absolutely delighted to be joined with Dame Stephanie today, Steve Shirley, as she’s known, and (may I call you Steve?), to talk about women and philanthropy today, a really interesting subject and possibly the best person in the world to talk about this subject. So, Steve, thank you for joining us on this Global 20 interview. I’d like to start really just by asking you, what is the state of play in terms of women’s issues? I did remember, and listen to you very carefully on your Women’s International Day broadcasts, and you touched on how much progress had been made. I just thought maybe you could share with us how the state of play is at the moment and your thoughts on it.

Dame Stephanie Shirley 0:42

There has been enormous progress over the years. Women of my generation were struggling against legal issues. We were not allowed to work on the Stock Exchange, we were not allowed to drive a bus or fly an aeroplane. I couldn’t even open my company’s bank account without male authorisation. And most financial transactions were, in fact, closed or made very difficult for women – getting a mortgage, hire purchase agreement, all those sorts of activities. But today, the issues are much more cultural. They’re still difficult, I always tend to sort of say they’re relatively trivial. But today’s young women still complain about micro aggressions, sexist behaviour in the workplace, a sort of continual drip drip of being patronised, of being belittled. And that is not good news in the 21st century.

Ben Morton-Wright 1:48

And your own talk, I believe, on women in philanthropy back in 2018 at our event, touched on a lot of these issues, and particularly about how maybe philanthropy is different for women. And I know you share your thoughts about that as a woman philanthropist, but also, during the day, and the Talking Philanthropy theme around women and philanthropy, we also spoke and heard about the research, which is certainly extensive in the US. But there’s some in the UK map, perhaps not enough, but also the thoughts about women living longer than men. So therefore, it’s important in terms of the wealth transfer, to think about women, philanthropy, and also women as decision makers being slightly different in terms of how they look at philanthropy. Perhaps as someone that’s, I think, almost given $100 million away now, or maybe more, that is quite remarkable, perhaps you could share with us your own thoughts about women and philanthropy and how it perhaps differs?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 2:46

Well, there have been some studies in the UK. New Philanthropy Capital studied how women philanthropists give and it turns out somewhat differently. We tend to give to unpopular topics, refugees, domestic violence and such topics. And there was some more work about how women major donors, that I would have expected them to give to children and cuddly animals. I mean how sexist is that really? But in fact, major women donors give far more to international projects, they give more strategically they give more long term, they give repeat donations when things are going well. And that was somewhat counterintuitive. But it’s worth remembering, because as you say, women finish up very often upholding the family wealth. And so legacy from women should, or could, be much higher.

Ben Morton-Wright 3:59

You’ve been an incredibly strategic philanthropist as well. I think it’s something that we’d love to hear more about. And there’s a huge amount of work that you’ve done, but very focused work. It’d be great to talk us through your experience with those charities and establishing charities, and how you’ve approached those charities. I think there’s three core ones that you’ve set up and then you’ve also supported a number of other initiatives at Oxford University and at The Guilds. And I’m wondering whether you could talk through your philanthropic journey and how you got to a place where you were so strategic and have invested so cleverly? I think it’s ‘Venture Philanthropy’ you call it, isn’t it in your philanthropic journey?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 4:41

I think it’s Venture Philanthropy because I’m trying to use my experience of business and I was in business for 45 years, to approach giving, not only in a good and non patronising way, but also in a strategic way, that makes a real difference. So I’ve always been in research of one sort or another, either as of research or funding research. So I don’t fund projects, no matter how worthy, if they’re just more of the same another, this or another that. I think other people will do that. I fund pioneering projects, and strategic projects, only in the areas that I know and care about. And there are only two really; information technology, my professional discipline, and autism, which was my late son’s condition. So by focusing on those two, I’ve been able to make a difference, particularly in the autism sector. My impact on the information technology area was more in my business career. I’ve found it totally satisfying. I guess I’ve done about 100 projects over the past few years. That’s not counting some of the small ones. But the three biggest ones are actually charities that I set up and took through to sustainability. So it’s one thing to set up a charity, that’s difficult enough. But unless it becomes sustainable, it’s just a continual drain on the management, to even keep it active. So the first charity was Autism At Kingwood, which has long term support for adults with autism. And I started that when my son was alive and he was the first resident in the first home that now looks after 24/7, about 150 people of equal, if not more, vulnerability. These are adults with extremely challenging behaviour, by which I mean the carers are challenged. Many of them epileptic, many without speech. And it also does things such as provide a diagnostic service for autism in the Oxford area. We’re in Oxfordshire. We started off in Henley on Thames, we started off in Kingwood, which is hence the name Autism At Kingwood. I was going with the Chief Executive of that to some events in the states and we took the opportunity of going to visit a school, the Higashi School in Boston, USA.

And I was so impressed by the progress that those kids were making, I came back determined to have such a school like that in England. And so I tore up to the Department of Education and Science, or whatever it was called in those in those days, and they explained to me in a very patronising way that they didn’t set up schools, it was individuals who set up schools. So I went ahead and did that. That took me five years and 22 months from concept to actually opening, but it took five years to get sustainable. And by sustainable I mean managerially and financially independent of me, so that after that time, I withdrew completely. I had previously chaired the trustees then found a new chairman, Sir Derek Hornby was marvellous, and really, that has replaced my business achievements as being my legacy. I realised that that school Prior’s Court school near Newbury is going to be there in 50 years time. It’ll be different, I’m sure, but it really has a remarkable record and a remarkable culture. And culture, of course comes from the top, so it’s a culture which I approve.

Ben Morton-Wright 9:36

You very kindly showed me around and I mean, it’s just a phenomenal organisation. You must be very proud talking about your legacy. It’s incredible and the help it’s given and the support it’s given is so progressive and so moving really and it’s an incredible legacy, in terms of your own philanthropy, but you were saying?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 9:56

At the moment Prior’s Court is having difficulty because as we’re short of staff, and 13% of the staff used to come from Europe and that dried up, of course, and post pandemic, we’re really having to restrict the number of pupils, because we cannot keep them safe.

Ben Morton-Wright 10:19

In terms of the next generation of philanthropists, so your philanthropic struggle is really a huge beacon for so many in terms of the journey that you’ve been on. But for the terms of the next generation and the young generation, do you have any observations about how they’re reacting to philanthropy? And what do we have in store for the next gen in terms of that philanthropic community?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 10:45

The young people I know have a different view of philanthropy. They’re keen. They do give to emergency projects, but give in a small way. What they do in a strategic way is that they get involved in campaigns. So if you think of things like Black Lives Matter, or the Me Too movement, or for that matter, Greta Thunberg, these are not charities, they are not formalised entities, and yet they are making a massive difference in improving the world’s social approach.

Ben Morton-Wright 11:34

And in terms of the future, are you optimistic about the growth of philanthropy, do you think?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 11:42

Well, I am always an optimistic person. The Economist magazine said that the 21st century was going to be the century of philanthropy, that it is THE most important thing. And as central government withdraws worldwide from social activities, you can see the need for philanthropy, not only to pilot new projects, but also to provide ongoing quality services.

Ben Morton-Wright 12:14

I’m pleased that the next Talking Philanthropy is going to be looking at just this subject, actually, in terms of philanthropy being a platform for actually helping in so many of these issues. In terms of your journey, and what advice you would give to others, what’s the critical advice you would give in terms of someone in your shoes a few years back, starting this journey? What would you say to them?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 12:40

That’s quite simple, really. Start small, see how you go. Start local, by which I mean, either your village or in your own country. Don’t start long term projects until you really have some experience of the culture. Concentrate on things that you enjoy. That makes it a sheer pleasure and a reciprocal relationship and start with things that you really understand, that you know the sector, you know some of the people in it, perhaps. I think that helps to stop you’re being patronising. I think it’s important to give without patronising people. And I mean, I’ve been the recipient of charity and I’ve been grossly patronised and I did not like it. So I think to give with, you know, a warm hand and with enthusiasm is also important for the recipients point of view.

Ben Morton-Wright 13:56

And some people talk about the joy of giving, it being an amazing thing to do. What’s your reflection in terms of how you have found this whole experience? Giving away nearly 100 million or over 100 million, some people would think that was a nightmare, let alone an enjoyable experience. So how have you enjoyed it?

Dame Stephanie Shirley 14:16

It’s a nightmare in the sense that it’s not particularly easy, you have to learn how to do it. And I’ve had charities that have gone bankrupt in the middle of a project that I was funding, you know, and just all sorts of things can happen. I’ve had money that’s never got to the planned recipient. What it’s done for me is, I was a refugee and had very bad mental health problems and was in what’s called ‘survivor guilt’. And I find that the only antidote for the depression that follows survivor guilt is compassion. And now I spend my life in the philanthropic sector, I find that I’m a happy person, I’m stable, I enjoy life, and have something to get up for each morning. I could not recommend it more. And when I was the ambassador for philanthropy, that was one of the messages that I tried to get. It is a great sheer pleasure, as well as privilege.

Ben Morton-Wright 15:29

I think that’s a wonderful way to draw this 20 minutes to a close. And can I thank you for sharing your story and your insights, both into women in philanthropy, but also your own personal journey, and it’s just phenomenal what you’ve done. We’re all in absolute admiration for everything that you’ve achieved and done so thank you for sharing that with us. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Dame Stephanie Shirley 15:52

Thank you for having me. Thank you.