As part of our 20th birthday celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Here Pam Davis, President, Global Philanthropic (Europe), interviewss Lord Simon Woolley, Principal of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.

In this interview, Lord Woolley explains how philanthropists can empower beneficiaries and allow them to be the experts in making impact – and why ‘sewing a golden thread’ to link all stakeholders will help philanthropy to turbocharge change.


Pam Davis 0:00
Hello, I’m Pam Davis and as part of Global Philanthropic’s #Global 20 interview series, marking our 20th anniversary, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview Lord Simon Woolley, Principal of Homerton College Cambridge, about philanthropy’s role in society. Lord Woolley is not only a thought leader but a doer. Early on he engaged in politics, joining the campaign group Charter 88, to research the potential impact of the black vote. The findings encouraged him to launch Operation Black Vote in 1996. Esmee Fairbairn Foundation estimated that your efforts in this area had encouraged millions of people to vote.
Lord Woolley has also worked with the Open Source Foundation on their global drugs policy projects, securing 90 million in funding to encourage disadvantaged young people to work. He has served as a Commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission and was one of the architects of the UK’s Race Disparity Unit. In October of 2021, Lord Woolley was elected Principal of Homerton College Cambridge. Welcome, Lord Woolley. Can you share with us a little bit about your philanthropic journey and what philanthropy has meant to you?
Lord Woolley 1:20
Well, I’ve been an activist for nearly 30 years. I see myself as a, in many ways, a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King, who had more than a dream, he had a plan. A plan to tackle racial and social injustice. And for many years we worked as volunteers, we had no money and no money anytime soon. And it wasn’t until philanthropists, organisations and individuals lent their support, including financial support, but in a way we were able to turbocharge our dream and our passion for justice. What is interesting, that those philanthropists, those organisations, in our case in the UK, particularly the Quakers with their social justice mission, they were able to empower us. So their philosophy was, we don’t know, you know. That we will empower you to do what you need to do. So it was never a diktat. We were never told, “well, we’ve got this vision, and we’d like you to get on board”. It was “we need to empower you because the genesis and the driver start with you doing what you need to do”.
Pam Davis 2:48
That’s an early and very enlightened view, which I think a lot of philanthropy has only just caught up with in the past few years. So that’s really good to hear. I wonder if we could explore this a little bit more? I came across the Operation Black Vote report in 2017 that was called The Colour of Power, which looked at the racial make up of the UK’s top jobs across 28 sectors. And if we change that slightly, and we undertook a similar exercise, and we called it The Colour of Philanthropy, what would we find?
Lord Woolley 3:23
We would be shocked to see the billionaires and millionaires in the philanthropic space who predominantly, I wouldn’t say exclusively, but near exclusively, don’t look like me. And, moreover, don’t have the lived experience of someone like me, or black and brown. Now, why does that matter? Well, I think as you suggested beforehand unless you have extremely enlightened philanthropists, they cannot bring their passion, vision, to this to this space, because they’re always looking at it through a different lens. So it might be well-meaning, but actually, it might do more harm than good. So you need representation. You need lived experiences at the top of these spaces, to be able to better articulate what’s needed.
If I may say, I do remember speaking to George Soros at his home in New York, and he asked me what the problem is. And I said, with all due respect sir, the problem might be you, unless you can empower others like me to be in those decision making tables. And to be fair to him and his son Alex, he said, I agree. I agree that it can’t be me speaking for you. You must speak for yourselves, and it’s a big moment for me when, when those types of people get that and make the change to ensure greater representation.
Pam Davis 5:20
That’s a really good point. It made me wonder how do we encourage people who may not have that perspective yet? How do we encourage them to see, not the benefit for them because frankly, people often start with that, how is that going to help me? So to help people see the benefit for them?
Lord Woolley 5:43
I think that those in that space, who have a lot of money, and are well-meaning, you know, that you’ve dealt and had dinners with a lot of these people. And often, many of them have gotten where they were through being, excuse my language, bloody-minded. And not Machiavellian, but how can I put it, entrepreneurial, and you know, but what too often, what some lack is humility. And it’s the humility piece that says, “I don’t know but I think you do”, is a game changer. Because it’s in that space where you say, look, I can help but I want you to do. I like those conversations. I’ve had them in big government, I’ve had them with philanthropists. And when you marry those to humility, support, driven impatience for change, I think good things can happen.
Pam Davis 6:52
Have you found people being more willing, in the past couple of years to be a bit more humble? And to listen a little bit more? And why is that happening?
Lord Woolley 7:05
I think the murder of George Floyd and the conversation that it spawned, for the first time in my lifetime, did I hear philanthropists, CEOs in business and education institutions be open to listen more to the lived experiences of people that didn’t look like them. Beforehand they’d say, “Yes, but” or “Aren’t we all the same?” Or “Isn’t it your problem?” But this time, for some reason, they kind of took a step back and said, “I need you”. I mean, to me, it’s a bit shocking why it took so long. But it is shocking. Nevertheless, when people say, I believe you, and say not what can I do but what can we do, then you start putting into place the great support and interventions that will have the transformative effect.
Pam Davis 8:17
Because you’ve been involved in politics for so many years, both as an activist and in government, are the conversations changing? Do you see those changing? I think sometimes as a citizen, and I’m a dual citizen, we don’t always hear our politicians saying the things that we wish that they would be saying, and maybe it would be interesting if you could kind of help us understand, are those conversations taking place? Are there changes afoot? What can we do, I guess, as voters?
Lord Woolley 8:55
Sure. Well, I think voters are important because the politicians need our vote. And this is why I’ve been a bit involved in Operation Black Vote, to move the dial through the electoral process. In regards to the politicians, it ebbs and flows. This present government, a little bit like the Donald Trump government, has been in full square denial of structural race inequality, for example. And many other areas. Deny, deny, deny, deny, gaslight, to tell people that they don’t have a problem. They’re the problem. And that’s where we are with this present government, I’m afraid in no small measure.
And what then tends to happen is that why societies, that will be ready for change, if government is in denial and foursquare against it, you lose that opportunity. You know, so that’s the first thing. But the bigger picture is, I think that if citizens, voters, good people, stand up and be counted and saying that we want these uncomfortable conversations, we want to learn from it, this is not a I win, you lose power, it’s I win, we all win. And I think there’ll be a parallel universe, if you like, one, the deniers, and then the other, the rest of society. And I think the rest of the society will be much bigger, and then government will have to follow suit. Because this track, unleashes talent, one. Two, it allows people to better live together. There’s not the blame game. I’m poor, because I’m taking the knee, as some would articulate it, pitting poor white people against poor black people. No, we’re together, we can solve this problem, it’s not a zero-sum game. And, above all, we unleash talent.
Pam Davis 10:56
Thank you so much. One of the things that struck me as you were talking about that, Simon, is that oftentimes philanthropists want to fund something that isn’t around policy, or politics. And yet, we’ve had other speakers and yourself who are emphasising the importance of supporting these groups. If I were a philanthropist, I wish I had the kind of money that some of them do, if I were a philanthropist, and I said, Simon, tell me why I should support some of these grassroots organisations. What’s going to be different? How would you help me to understand that?
Lord Woolley 11:37
I would say that real change has to be bottom up. And you have to empower those citizens, particularly those citizens that are most affected by inequality, of injustice. They can best articulate the challenge, and what they need, if they’re supported. It’s really no good that somebody high above said, I know what’s good for you. Because how would you? You can say, I want to support someone like you, but you cannot know. So the bottom-up approach, and then linked in with allies, that linked in with people who have a Rolodex of powerful people, you know, why don’t you speak to so and so? You’ve got some great ideas. And then opening that door, and then say, I’ve been around the table too, you know, if you have 1 million pounds, and then you call 10 other people that have a million pounds, then you’ve just got a catalytic converter that is the driver for great change.
And I think that that is driven by humility, is driven by a sense of purpose. But it’s driven by also a passion, a passion to want to see change, not in 10 years’ time or even five years’ time, but next month, next year. And the building, the building of that change is extremely empowering and humbling. Because it means every day you wake up as a philanthropist saying, I’m helping change in the world.
Pam Davis 13:26
It’s very true. We’ve talked a little bit about the colour of philanthropy, and I just think it would be good to pause here again and say, why does that matter? Or is it perhaps the recognition and inclusion of a wider group of donors as a means to push equity in society? And why does that matter now, more than ever?
Lord Woolley 13:52
I think inclusion and representative philanthropists, givers, supporters, does one of two things. One, it allows you to make better decisions. Yes, because you’ve got that team in diversity that comes from different perspectives. Two, and almost equally important, it’s about illustrating where power is. Where it lies. Who has to be listened to? So if, for example, you are just a group of white people saying “this is how we’re going to change the world” and you have black and brown people looking blank thinking, hmm, how does that relate to me? Is that what power looks like? Is that what philanthropy looks like?
You know, some of the greatest philanthropists in the world are those that have little or nothing, because they’re constantly giving and there’s no pat on the back. Or any recognition. So we know how to give with nothing. Imagine how we can give with something.
Pam Davis 15:18
That’s an extraordinary thought. As we look at the future, and clearly we’re faced with, you and I spoke before the interview, about some of the very, very difficult challenges ahead of us, what role do you think philanthropy can play? And, you know, if you were in charge of the whole shebang, where would you ask people to start?
Lord Woolley 15:40
Well, I’d ask people to start by listening. I’d ask people to start by opening up their heart. I’d ask people to convene like-minded people in different areas. And so that, how can we make a catalytic converter? How can we accumulate what we’ve got to drive the greatest change? I think particularly for philanthropists, they have a special place in this planet. Really. If you think about it. Because there are very few people that can truly be the change makers that philanthropists can be. I’m an activist, I can campaign, I can go with my placards. But philanthropists can say, I’m not only going to talk, I’m going to fantastically do. So it’s a special role that I don’t want philanthropists to be burdened by but enlightened by it. Not be big-headed by it but be humbled. Have the humility to say this is really not about me, you know, I’m fine, but about what I, as a human being, can do. That’s the conversation I want with philanthropists.
Oh, and by the way Pam, they’re welcome to come here. I’m happy to convene them. You can chair, Pam, because that’s what you do. You chair, I’ll point the finger and we can hopefully, sew a golden thread. What about that?
Pam Davis 17:37
That would be very exciting. I think you’ve written a wonderful new, or improved the role description of an ‘Enlightened Philanthropist’ and the kinds of philanthropy that we need today. Lord Simon Wolley, thank you so much for your time today.
Lord Woolley 17:53
Thank you.