Let IT Go

9th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting, Barbados

Speech given at the 9th Commonwealth Women's Affairs Ministers Meeting held in Bridgetown, Barbados.

Secretary General, Conference Chairman, Distinguished ladies and gentlemen.

We never know what life holds for us. I want to thank you for inviting me to address this meeting of Commonwealth Women's Affairs Ministers. I'm one of the many in the UK who value the Commonwealth highly, from its global network and shared history to its unique perspective on today's vital issues. One such theme is that which you are addressing "recovery and growth with equity", including the positive role women can play in getting the world out of its economic mess.

I hope today to add something to your discussions, by outlining a little of my own story, my experience of poverty and the business success that relied on women and my commitment to putting my wealth to work. I will then go on to consider what my latest role, as the UK government-appointed Ambassador for Philanthropy, could offer you and your countries in meeting urgent needs, building development and helping that economic recovery. I shall be urging you to join together to unleash philanthropy – but more of that later.

* * * * * * *

Let me introduce myself. Everyone's life has three parts: learning, earning, and returning; the giving back. I certainly learnt a great deal in my early life as an unaccompanied child refugee. When I was five years old, my mother did a very brave thing. She sent me to England, out of German anti-Semitism, into the arms of strangers, thinking never to see me again.

I learnt in those years to cope with change and to welcome that tomorrow is different from today and nothing like yesterday. I also learnt to deal with my survivor guilt – the irrational depression at having survived when so many millions died – by making each day count ... to make my life worth saving. Finally, as a migrant, I love my country with a passion perhaps only someone who has lost their human rights can feel.

* * * * * * *

Now for the earning phase of my life. I founded a 20th century cottage industry for women with computer skills that eventually became large and successful. It was a company of women; a company for women. I was a pathfinder in the professionalism of women – especially in the hi-tech industries – and for years I was the first woman this, the only woman that.

In those days no one expected much from women; I couldn't accept that and challenged the current conventions, even adopting the name Steve in business letters to get through the door before anyone realised that he was actually "a she".

I wanted opportunities for women. I recruited professionally qualified women who had left the computer industry to marry or have children, and structured them into a home-working organisation.

Thirteen years after we started, employment equality legislation made such positive discrimination illegal, so we let men in "if they were good enough!".

It was a way of giving – giving opportunities to women.

Given that history, you'll not be surprised that I believe investing in women and girls produces real, tangible benefits. Not just for those individuals but for their families, their communities and their nations. That's especially difficult in today's economic times.

All too often women find ourselves at the bottom of the heap. Poverty faces many women in the world. But does not stop them from putting resources to good use whenever and wherever they can, whether it is in starting small businesses or in the education of children.

We know of the impact of innovations such as micro-credit and we have seen what education for girls can produce. We know that as the wealth of women rises, the extra money is spent well: on housing, health care, clean water, and better food for the family.

If one can generalise about our gender, we do not waste – whether it's money, resources or time. Instead, we work, we save and we invest for the future. If the world wants development, equity and sustained growth, investing in women gives great returns.

* * * * * * *

Let's talk about giving. My company's success made me wealthy. I now live modestly in retirement with my husband, with my time spent on the returning phase of my life. I have a super lifestyle, working hard with interesting people on worthwhile projects. I believe in the beauty of work when it is done properly and in humility.

Gone are the days when women only became wealthy by marrying or inheriting money. Since all my wealth comes from that computer software company, I started off by giving shares away, firstly to the staff and then to various charities.

The Shirley Foundation's mission was to be: pioneering - no matter how worthy, we don't just do more of the same - strategic, by which I mean that, if successful, the project makes a real difference, though we know that pioneering projects can and do fail. If we had 100% success, I'd reckon we were not taking sufficient risk.

Because of my professional background, some big donations have concerned information technology, from education to exploring the social, economic, legal and ethical issues of the Internet. But the vast bulk has gone on work related to the lifelong developmental disability of autism; autism hampers people's communication and social interaction. It was my late son's disorder.

* * * * * * *

Giles was our only child, a beautiful baby who turned into a wild, unmanageable toddler. He went to a good school for non-communicating children and we had some relatively calm years. But he flipped completely when puberty hit, we couldn't find a school that would take him, and things only got worse. When he was 13, I broke down completely and we both finished up in hospital. I came out of mine in a month; and was back at work within the year; Giles stayed in a locked ward for 11 years. Autism can be a devastating disorder and there is as yet no cure.

My first big autism project had Giles as the first resident in the first home of the first charity I set up. That now supports 52 adults. All with autism and what is euphemistically called "challenging" behaviour.

I believe that giving is a social and cultural activity not merely a financial transaction. Sure, money can be given as a compassionate act of detachment. In giving to make a difference, I try to make it a committed act of love. I started with that hands-on support service for my late son. He died unexpectedly over 10 years ago now. Love transcends death. Autism continues as the ongoing focus of my life.

Over the years, wherever I found a gap – from medical research to family support or political awareness – I tried to help, whether through charities, university research centres, parliamentary groups or new institutions. There have been donations, large and small – the small ones always given regularly to allow the recipients to plan – but every one was accompanied by involvement, and the commitment of my time and skills. It is demeaning to "just" give money – and anyway one wants the fun, the adrenalin buzz, of commitment. If you don't commit, you're just taking up space.

* * * * * * *

Giving is now what I do and it gives me enormous pleasure. It's the right thing to do, and giving makes me feel good.

That feelgood factor is because human beings are neurochemically reinforced for sharing. Brain scans show that the pleasure centres in the brain are stimulated when we act unselfishly. When you first have more than you need, one's reactions are usually emotional and immature. It takes time and reflection to realise that giving is more fun. And if, like me, people have helped you through difficulties in your life, what else can I do but give? Giving serves as some sort of repayment.

Giving is always a private expression of personal beliefs. Perhaps the motives hardly matter. Giving is a defining characteristic of the human species, whatever someone's background. Sikhs believe in life in three equal dimensions, one of which is sharing one's time, talents and earnings with the less fortunate. The Quaker Society of Friends always, but always, gives anonymously. Muslims generally give "in charity" to individuals rather than "to charity" and - like many Jews - think of giving as a duty not an option. Giving to someone to help their self-sufficiency is viewed as more valuable than giving which might engender a dependency culture. It's justice in an unfair world.

Giving should be proactive, ambitious and focused on results. My aim is always to be professional, efficient and effective. Over the years my giving has become more and more strategic. The money may be important but passion and the human touch must also be there, so as not to patronise beneficiaries. I know from having received charity myself and been expected to be grateful, how easy it is to patronise. So I give with a warm hand and liberal spirit, – what's the fun of writing gifts into my last will and testament?

I am lucky in the autumn of my life to have something to wake up for in the morning. I meet more interesting people, travel purposefully to more interesting places and feel more fulfilled as a social entrepreneur than I ever did in the years spent making money. The more I give away, the richer my life seems to become.

* * * * * * *

Now let me explain about my work as the UK Ambassador for Philanthropy, and my pledge to inspire the idea that giving is a pleasurable act of desire and compassion to help, change or challenge any aspect of society by raising the bar on our capacity to be generous.

Just over a year ago, I was humbled to be asked by the then UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to take this honorary post. Apparently I was selected because "the powers that be" thought I represented a modern model of philanthropy. I hope my selection was because I'd moved on from being a 'cheque writing giver' into one with strategic ambitions and goals.

I had certainly learnt to speak about my giving, to empower others to emerge from anonymity and share their philanthropic experiences and motives. I'd made my own money, and was a woman, breaking barriers along the way. I also had first hand knowledge of the goodness and generosity of the British welcoming me as a child. I have always been thankful for being welcomed. And shall never forget it.

As Ambassador for Philanthropy, what have I done so far? A year is not long, especially when trying to affect a cultural shift of any magnitude, so I have been actively sowing seeds to foster a change in giving over the next decade or more. Luckily, I was not working alone. Other philanthropists, philanthropic leaders and organisations have seized on my ambassadorship as an opportunity to work together to transform philanthropy.

With that help, I have been reaching out to offer my fellow philanthropists a Voice

  • started creating a new network for donors
  • looked to leverage influence through advisors and the banks
  • launched events to highlight the need for greater giving
  • encouraged researchers to study this vital sector
  • and begun examining the simple legal and taxation changes that could bring in those extra billions

Regardless of age, race, creed (or indeed, gender) philanthropists (and those who have the potential to become the next generation of strategic givers) need to have a voice independent of the organisations they support, so that they can influence the national dialogue on all things philanthropic, including issues of tax or other incentives. At the moment, philanthropists are absent from the relevant discussions.

So, one of the 'seeds' being sown has been a website, www.ambassadorforphilanthropy.com includes dozens of videos of philanthropists - including me - discussing their giving; the nuts and bolts, the motives and emotions, the problems and delights. And for those who say the reserved British don't talk about money this site proves that we Brits are open to sharing our unique stories of putting money to good use. We learn from stories. They have influence. That's why I've shared my story. Now dozens of others are sharing theirs.

Taking that idea in a different direction, I have established, with a colleague, an independent Fellowship of British Philanthropists to bring donors together on a regular basis to develop their skills so that they can give with greater impact. It offers opportunities to learn and share knowledge through briefings and seminars. The voice of that fellowship will help ensure philanthropy is a force for change both individually and collectively by enabling members to put forward their views on its role, regulation and responsibilities to decision makers within and beyond government.

In looking for influence and leverage, I've met with a number of key stakeholders, such as the financial advisers to potential major donors and the banking and financial industries. With those advisors, I have been establishing the Philanthropy Advice Steering Group, so we can create and develop a marketplace for philanthropic advice. And not so long from now, we will be holding in London a Summit of leaders from the financial industries to see what more their organisations can be doing to foster philanthropy. Things such as creating consumer bank accounts and donor-advised funds, things that make giving easy, swift and tax effective.

One channel that must be more effectively used for philanthropy is cyberspace, so the Oxford Internet Institute – a significant recipient of my own philanthropy in the past - has just staged a policy forum on "Unleashing the Potential of e-Philanthropy". While later this month, in the wake of the recent, rather interesting UK election, a Summit of Philanthropists will explore what recommendations they want to make to the new Prime Minister, his Deputy and their coalition Government.

It has been a busy year, and I was very pleased the other day that Gordon Brown was able to call the results so far "truly impressive" and express his confidence that what had started would continue to bring rewards to those most in need. But I want to go further.

* * * * * * *

Across the world, we know that philanthropy is a promising force for good, channelling resources from the successful and wealthy to invest in charities, community groups and social enterprises to benefit others. Philanthropy has certainly been a creative force for good for women worldwide, generating support for education, microfinance, health care and much more.

Yet I am convinced that the potential for philanthropy remains significantly unfulfilled, held back by many factors, from tax regulations and bureaucratic rules to the lack of a giving culture. There's also the limited number of donor role models able to influence others by being willing to discuss why and how they contribute.

How can a Commonwealth country achieve the essential changes in behaviour and attitudes to foster greater giving, and ensure that it offers a giving-friendly legislative context? I think an Ambassador for Philanthropy is a great way to prompt change by providing a focus and impetus for action, by highlighting the needs and potential, and by a suitable individual using their profile, personality and contacts to inspire many others to offer more of their wealth, skills and time.

So how could you start? For you as government ministers, (or as advisers at that level) there is one difficult but vital point to get right first. An Ambassador for Philanthropy must have independence and access, so the individual has the ear of government yet is able to challenge established thinking and existing practice. It's obvious why this must be: philanthropy is independent, creative, free-willed, and will not flourish if seen as beholden to government or serving anyone's interests except the donor and recipient.

Next, a budget for communications, events and publications, and a small staff, underwritten and funded by the Ambassador, will help ensure efforts to encourage greater giving reach the right targets, while liaison and regular reporting through a single senior minister's office - such as your own - with a dedicated public servant, would allow productive dialogue and good coordination with other government departments.

Who should one choose? The ideal would be someone with the time to devote to the task, a track record as a philanthropist, an excellent reputation, good media skills and the willingness to be persistent in urging necessary changes. I'm sure you can think of suitable women (or men for that matter!) for any shortlist.

So today I have an invitation to extend to everyone here that I believe can be of enormous long-term benefit to the Commonwealth and its members. I am convinced that the concept of an Ambassador for Philanthropy is something that can work in each and every one of our countries. I am equally convinced that we can achieve more by working together on such an idea, inspiring all of us to be generous, and fostering the conditions in which such generosity can achieve its greatest impact for good.

Not only does this offer a new way for philanthropists to serve their country - your country - but it also creates opportunities for countries like yours to work with those who give. To define a portfolio of social initiatives and investments for their fellow philanthropists from around the world. In this way, philanthropy can be a strategic factor in development, and be a creative influence in foreign relations and diplomacy.

So the call is simple: I urge every nation here to consider the potential of an Ambassador for Philanthropy to unleash the philanthropy from their communities - both at home and in so many cases scattered across the world - to serve the needs of those communities.

I know that some of you here have already been in touch with my office to discuss appointing your own Ambassador for Philanthropy, and we have a number of one-to-one meetings planned while I'm here in beautiful Barbados to discuss those ideas in detail.

If you want to know more about having a national Ambassador for Philanthropy, sign up at the Registration desk and let us unleash philanthropy together!

Copyright June 2010

Dame Stephanie Shirley

Tel: +44 (0) 1491 579004
Fax: +44 (0) 1491 574995
Email: steve@steveshirley.com
Website: www.steveshirley.com

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The word 'inspiring' is greatly overused, but Stephanie Shirley's story is one of those rare cases in which it truly applies. This book is an extraordinary tale of creativity and resilience, and of the power of well-targeted philanthropy to transform the world.
Oliver Burkeman, Guardian journalist and author

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I feel lucky to count myself one of Steve’s friends, and I am so happy that, by sharing her story with us in the pages of this book, she will inevitably acquire many more admirers and fans. We may never be able to achieve a fraction of her success and influence, but the example of her generosity and unflagging attempts to use her hard won fortune to do good will inspire all of us to do just that bit more to leave the world a slightly better place than we found it.
Jane Asher


A wonderful, inspirational, living, breathing life of a book.
Stuart Ongley, SGO Music


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