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Dame Stephanie Shirley: Making the lasting difference

Dame Stephanie Shirley brought the same trailblazing zeal to philanthropy over the past quarter century as she did as an IT industry pioneer. She tells James Beech what she learned from starting and finishing charitable giving
Dame Stephanie Shirley
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Photography: Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley

How a philanthropist ends their legacy is just as important as how they start it. Just ask Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley CH, who at 85 and after decades of venture philanthropy is spending out her charitable Shirley Foundation while ensuring the good work continues.

Over coffee in a City of London café, the IT entrepreneur turned philanthropist, author, and public speaker says her approach to philanthropy has varied over the years. In some cases from originating projects and then carrying them out, to sometimes handing them over permanently in the form of a charity to a set of trustees, to dedicating three years to a goal and wrapping it up when the task is done.

“And at my age I find that I’m always worried about starting a long project, will I be here in three years’ time? Is it sensible to start this project? I always get involved and I add time and skills and contacts, and it makes it much more interesting, for me apart from anything else.”

An impact evaluation of her philanthropy revealed that 84% of repondents said the foundation’s involvement was inspirational. That is in addition to the £68 million ($88.3 million) she has contributed to various causes, funded by the estimated £150 million accumulated after selling her IT firm in the early 1990s.

Since being founded in 2004 by Shirley, Autistica alone has raised more than £8.5 million in support of autism research, and become established as Europe’s leading autism research charity. However, she is unsentimentally winding up her umbrella Shirley Foundation into another charity by the end of 2018.

“I don’t think of legacy except in reputation,” she says.

“What does one do when we close down a charitable foundation? Everyone said, ‘Well surely you just stop’, But you don’t because you’ve still got a legacy which you want to leave. You have got to spend out in a way that all the money is spent, but at the same time, right at the end you have still got somebody doing some clerical work. It’s quite difficult. I’m taking the chief executive of Autistica, the medical research charity, to meet the bankers, so that we can just transfer rather than having to sell all our investments and then hand over a cheque.”

What motivates your philanthropy?

“The reasons that people do this apparently illogical thing about giving away to strangers really varies. It can be family tradition, and it can be for reputation. When philanthropists say they want to make a difference, that can also develop into wanting to be recognised for having made a difference and that is a reasonable human response. But it needs to be kept in check.

“I give back because I was given so much as a refugee, by total strangers. How could I not then give back?

“The difference between the wealthy and the poor, and I’ve been poor, is widening. There is plenty of need.”

In the wake of the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal, what is your view of the philanthropy sector today?

“There are many charities who do very good work, but have somehow lost that link between themselves and their beneficiaries and for that matter the greater world outside. That is a corporate thing that happens. Companies get into that state, not necessarily with moral ineptitude, but they get sloppy and they get bureaucratic. I think one has to remember that mostly they do good work.”

Is there any sort of shake up that you would like to see in the philanthropy sector? Or is it a case of getting back to its core values? 

“I think it’s concentrating on its core values. What has happened, in a sense, is as business have become more social, what used to be just corporate social responsibility is now really much part of branding of a business. It has to meet some social need and have some social purpose in order to attract staff and in order to keep customers.

“It is much more than just corporate social responsibility now, it is really wrapped up in the business. At the same time, charities have become more business-like. We do not survive if we don’t, nobody gives us money if we don’t.”

What is your advice to family business leaders who are interested in giving back?

“Usually I say start small, start local and on things you care about. You can see what is happening to that old people’s home as you’re walking through to the station every day, so it’s local.

“Charity has had the reputation of being amateurish. Some of it is, and when it is, you shouldn’t support it, because it’s a waste of money and energy. They haven’t done any research and they don’t know that somebody in the next county is doing something absolutely comparable. It drives me frantic.

“I think it’s more like the marketing of a business. You’ve got to know the sector.  Worldwide the state is now withdrawing from so many things. Are the charities going to pick up that slack to save the day, should we be doing that? Most philanthropists have got a clear rule: we don’t support things that are rightly the state’s responsibility.

“If you get chief executives [in the charitable sector], they have to be more than hardworking and nice and honest. They do have to know what they are doing.

“With autism, the need is endless really. This is why strategic work, like medical research that will eventually make more impact,[is important].

“What I do see more of is this measurement and impact investment, or impact assessment. It takes quite a long time to do. I’ve just done it after 20 years and it’s hard to make contact even with the people I was working with. They have all changed, or nobody remembers it at all.

When you look back at your career in philanthropy, what feelings come to the surface?

“I wish I had more time and more energy. Prior’s Court school [a specialist UK residential school for children with autism] that I set up took five years. At the time that’s all I did, that’s what I dreamt about. That’s a chunk of your life.

“I get so much satisfaction having done that and, in a sense, that charity is probably my legacy. I used to think that my company was my legacy—it lasted for 45 years. It had a high profile, changed its name a couple of times, but it’s now just a bit of social history. You can see it almost is gone. Whereas Prior’s Court has 600 staff and 100 pupils. The charity will be there in 100 years’ time. That is my legacy. It has got its board of governors, it has got its HR, psychology and nursing. I’m so proud of it. Including startup losses, that was £30 million. It was the biggest project I’ve ever done, and it certainly gives me the most pleasure.”

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